Watch: Armed forces storm oil tanker and detain stowaways after ‘hijacking’
When flashlights were spotted darting around the deck of the Nave Andromeda, it was clear that the 10-hour standoff was nearly over.
Under the cover of darkness, six miles off the Isle of Wight, sixteen Royal Navy Special Boat Service commandos dropped down from four hovering helicopters and took back control of the 228-metre oil tanker from a gang of seven stowaways.
The enormous vessel left port in Lagos, Nigeria on October 6 heading towards Southampton.
At full capacity, it can carry 500,000 barrels of oil, but it is understood that the tanker is nearly empty and was on its way to collect gasoline from the Fawley oil refinery, run by ExxonMobil.
On board the ship, which sails under the flag of Liberia, there were 22 crew members. But there were also seven stowaways.
“Security in third world ports is not as high as in the first world, so it is relatively easy to get through perimeter fences," said Maritime expert and finance editor at Lloyd's List, David Osler.
“International Maritime Organisation guidelines mandate search of vessels prior to departure, but sometimes stowaways slip through.”
Flag officials are working on the assumption that they boarded though the rudder trunk of the vessel, he added.
In any case, the ship left port with its human cargo and embarked on the mammoth 4,459 nautical mile journey.
After rounding the West coast of Africa, it dropped anchor just off the Canary Islands to collect bunker fuel - necessary to power the ship’s mighty engines.
Five days ago it stopped briefly just off the coast of Saint-Nazaire, France.
It is not known exactly when the stowaways were discovered, but they had no documentation and sources told the Telegraph their presence had been known for “some time”.
A source within the Liberian shipping registry said it was understood the seven men were all from Nigeria.
The question facing the captain and crew was how to deal with them.
It is understood that as the ship approached British waters, the crew tried to detain the stowaways in a cabin, but they got violent and that sparked the security incident.
Lawyers for Navios Tankers Management Inc, the Greek company who own the ship, said it was not a hijacking, but the Ministry of Defence did not rule that out.
On Sunday morning, violence erupted.
It was just after 10am when the desperate call went out.
The ship’s captain said that stowaways had been discovered on board and were making threats to kill the crew.
“I'm trying to keep them calm but please send help," he pleaded with the coastguard.
"You could hear the fear in his voice," sources said.
"The captain clearly stated he feared for their lives and needed urgent assistance, they needed rescuing."
Glass was smashed and in fear, the crew retreated to the ship's citadel, a secure area in which they can lock themselves, making it impossible for attackers to get in.
They contacted the coastguard, which then alerted police.
The ship was denied access to Southampton port and told to stay out at sea.
For hours, the Nave Andromeda zig-zagged in the ocean. It was unclear who was steering.
Two coastguard helicopters flew overhead, monitoring the situation. On land, an armed unit of police set up a station on the Isle of Wight. A three mile exclusion zone was ordered around the vessel.
Late in the afternoon, the situation escalated, and the Home Office approved military intervention.
As darkness fell on the Solent, the elite commandos moved in.
First, at least three small boats raced towards the ship while two Royal Navy wildcat helicopters and two Navy Merlin Mark 4 helicopters hovered overhead.
A team of Royal Navy divers were also flown in one of the helicopters in case the vessel had been mined, but were not required.
Sixteen members of the Royal Navy’s elite special boat service dropped onto the deck and secured the vessel, taking the stowaways into custody.
The vessel was expected to move into Southampton’s port overnight.
Just after 8pm, the Ministry of Defence tweeted: “In response to a police request, the Defence Secretary and Home Secretary authorised Armed Forces personnel to board a ship in the English Channel to safeguard life and secure a ship that was subject to suspected hijacking.
“Armed forces have gained control of the ship and seven individuals have been detained.
Police investigations will now continue. Initial reports confirm the crew are safe and well.”
Hampshire police on Sunday night said all 22 crew members "are safe and well" and a full investigation is under way.
Home Secretary Priti Patel expressed her gratitude too.
"Tonight we are thankful for the quick and decisive action of our police and armed forces who were able to bring this situation under control, guaranteeing the safety of all those on board."
Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, said the boarding of the tanker Nave Andromeda by British armed forces was a "good outcome".
"We have been watching this all day," he said.
"Seven stowaways on board taking over a ship or causing the ship not to be in full command would have triggered a multi-agency alarm and then well-rehearsed classified protocols were then put into action.
"Initially it didn't look like this was terrorist-related nor involving WMD but the erratic behaviour was concerning.
"The safety of the crew was important as is indeed any unauthorised movement towards the coast.
"I am pleased to see that swift action has been taken. This is a good outcome."
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