Migrants have hijacked a merchant ship that rescued them off the coast of Libya and it is now heading towards Malta, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and Maltese authorities said on Wednesday.
The 108 migrants were picked up by the cargo ship Elhiblu 1 and hijacked the vessel when it became clear that it planned to take them back to Libya, according to the website of Italian daily Corriere della Sera and Italian news agencies.
"These are not migrants in distress, they are pirates, they will only see Italy through a telescope," said Salvini, who has cracked down on illegal immigration, including closing Italy's ports to charity ships, since he took office in June last year.
A spokeswoman for Malta's armed forces confirmed the ship had been hijacked and said Maltese authorities were monitoring its progress and it would not be allowed to dock in Malta.
"This is clearly a case of organised crime," Salvini said on Facebook. "Our ports remain closed."
Salvini, the leader of the right-wing League party, has been at the centre of several international stand-offs over his refusal to let humanitarian ships dock in Italy.
This month parliament rejected a request by prosecutors to investigate him for kidnapping over a case in August when he blocked an Italian coastguard ship with 150 migrants aboard for almost a week off Sicily before finally letting it dock.