A dozen heavily armed Special Boat Service commandos abseiled from a helicopter on to a cargo ship in a daring mission to end a hostage drama in the English Channel.
Under cover of darkness, the crack troops swung on to the deck of the 770ft Grande Tema to tackle a gang of iron- bar-wielding stowaways who had forced the terrified crew to take refuge on the bridge.
As their Royal Navy Merlin helicopter hovered overhead, the SBS team – armed with assault rifles – rounded up the men and locked them in a cabin before freeing the ship’s 27 Italian and Filipino sailors.
The dramatic scenes played out late on Friday after the stowaways launched a desperate bid to force the ship’s captain to sail close enough to the Essex coast for them to swim ashore
Once the mission – understood to have been codenamed Operation Buckthorn – was complete, the troops were joined by police officers who arrested the stowaways.
Last night, a spokesman for the Grimaldi Group, which owns the ship, described how the SBS ordered the crew to help neutralise the gang.
Paul Kyprianou said: ‘Just before the Special Forces made their intervention, we were asked to switch off all the lights. Then they stormed aboard and the stowaways were put in a cabin. Then another helicopter landed on the ship with six police officers on board.
‘The whole operation took about 20 minutes. Everything went smoothly.
‘They [the crew] are just glad they are safe. You can imagine.’
A dozen heavily armed Special Boat Service commandos, left, abseiled from a helicopter, right, on to a cargo ship in a daring mission to end a hostage drama in the English Channel
The dramatic scenes played out late on Friday after the stowaways launched a desperate bid to force the ship’s captain to sail close enough to the Essex coast for them to swim ashore.
The 71,000-ton vessel sailed from Lagos in Nigeria on December 7. Eleven days later, the crew found four stowaways hiding in its vast cargo hold.
In accordance with international regulations, they gave them food and accommodation.
Shipping monitoring sites show the position of the vessel just north of the town of Margate
The 71,000-ton vessel sailed from Lagos in Nigeria on December 7. Eleven days later, the crew found four stowaways hiding in its vast cargo hold
But when the Italian-registered vessel entered the English Channel on Friday morning, the group broke out of their locked cabin and, after arming themselves with weapons, attempted to storm the bridge.
When they demanded the ship change course, the skipper alerted the UK coastguard.
The Ministry of Defence was briefed and the dramatic rescue mission planned.
Under cover of darkness, the crack troops swung on to the deck of the 770ft Grande Tema to tackle a gang of iron- bar-wielding stowaways who had forced the terrified crew to take refuge on the bridge
This graphic shows the ship’s route to Britain as well as five piracy incidents along the coast of Africa
First two Merlins were scrambled from their base in Yeovilton, Somerset, to the SBS HQ in Poole where they were met by commanders of the Special Forces unit’s elite X Squadron.
After getting the 12-strong team and their equipment on board, the helicopters flew to RAF Manston in Kent where the final touches to Operation Buckthorn were made.
A source told The Mail on Sunday: ‘One of the Merlins took off from Manston at around 10.45pm and flew out over the Kent coast and north towards the vessel. As they approached the ship the SBS commandos seated inside the helicopter pulled down their infrared night vision goggles, which offer almost perfect vision even in pitch black conditions, and the order was given to the ship’s captain to turn off all the lights.
‘The Merlin hovered over the rear of the ship and the guys fast-roped down, quickly making their way towards the bridge.
‘They got the situation under control very quickly, none of the kidnappers offered resistance. The crew looked mightily relieved.
It was travelling at a steady speed, but kept changing speed after the stowaways were found
Essex police confirmed that the vessel had docked at Tilbury and that four men had been detained under the Immigration Act
This red line shows how the ship is going in circles as the migrants demand that they are taken to Britain’s shores and the crew remain in control
Close-ups of the ship’s movements (green) show it repeatedly turning around during the day
‘For some SBS commandos this was their first mission so they got good experience out of it too.’
Mr Kyprianou added: ‘At the beginning the stowaways weren’t violent. We gave them accommodation and food.
‘They were calm but then, when the vessel was closer to shore, they changed their behaviour. They were young and they were African. We don’t know the nationality.
‘They probably managed to board the vessel in Lagos but we do not have information regarding the nationality.’
Essex police confirmed that the vessel had docked at Tilbury and that four men had been detained under the Immigration Act.