It was a ten-hour standoff at sea that culminated in nine minutes of ruthless, military precision.
Special Boat Service commandos used a classic pincer movement to storm the Nave Andromeda.
Two heavily-armed squads, wearing night vision goggles and thermal imaging equipment, rappelled down ropes from choppers at either end of the tanker before converging on seven Nigerian stowaways who quickly surrendered.
Special Boat Service commandos used a classic pincer movement to storm the Nave Andromeda
As police continue to question the suspects, the Mail charts the build-up to Sunday night’s flawless operation.
The seven stowaways slipped on board the Nave Andromeda shortly before the oil tanker left the Nigerian port of Lagos three weeks ago, on October 6.
After a brief stop off the coast of Saint-Nazaire in France it was heading to collect gasoline from Fawley Oil Refinery near Southampton when the drama unfolded.
The stowaways presence became known to the crew at some point during its 20-day voyage to Britain.
The seven stowaways slipped on board the Nave Andromeda shortly before the oil tanker left the Nigerian port of Lagos three weeks ago
Officials are working on the assumption that they boarded though the rudder trunk of the vessel.
‘Security in Third World ports is not as high as in the West, so it is relatively easy to get through perimeter fences,’ maritime expert David Osler said. ‘International Maritime Organisation guidelines mandate search of vessels prior to departure, but sometimes stowaways slip through.’
At around 9am on Sunday, the captain of the 42,000-ton tanker, a Greek-owned vessel which flies the Liberian flag, sent out a mayday distress signal six miles off the Isle of Wight when the stowaways allegedly started making threats to kill the crew. Tensions flared when the crew tried to lock the seven men in a cabin, having told them that they would be following protocol and informing authorities of their presence.
In a 21-second call which was released yesterday, the Greek captain begged ‘immediate assistance’ and described how the men were on the loose.
In heavily-accented English, he said: ‘The stowaways go outside, I see four person port side, midship, near to the manifold, and I have two of them starboard side on the bridge. I try to keep them calm but I need immediately, immediately agency assistance.’
The captain and 20 other crew members took refuge in the ship’s citadel, an emergency room used during pirate attacks, after the migrants ‘smashed glass and made threats to kill’.
From here they could control the ship and communicate with the authorities. Only the engineer, another Greek national, did not retreat to the citadel. The engineer remained in the engine room taking instructions from the master. A source said: ‘The captain clearly stated he feared for their lives and needed urgent assistance, they needed rescuing. It was desperation, you could hear the fear in his voice.’
Stalling for time
An hour later Hampshire Police receives reports regarding ‘concerns for the safety’ of the crew who had received ‘verbal threats’.
The ship had been due to dock at Southampton at 10.30am – but the captain decided the situation was too dangerous to approach the port. Instead, he steered the tanker on a circular and zig-zag course off the Isle of Wight to play for time.
The Nave Andromeda was built in 2011 and weighs 42,338 tonnes. It was last known to be docked in Lagos, Nigeria on October 6 (pictured: The ship off the Isle of Wight on Sunday)
An exclusion zone of three nautical miles was set up around the ship. By 5pm Hampshire constabulary had submitted a formal request to the Ministry of Defence for military support. The Royal Navy was given command of the operation and was given authorisation to use armed forces to board the tanker by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Home Secretary Priti Patel.
Throughout the afternoon, two coastguard helicopters flew overhead, monitoring the situation. On land, an armed unit of police set up a station on the Isle of Wight. Richard Meade, of the Lloyd’s List Intelligence maritime service, said: ‘Seven stowaways were discovered on board. The crew tried to detain them in a cabin, but the stowaways did not want to be locked away in a cabin and became violent and that raised the security alarm.’
Positioning the troops
After taking control of the mission, naval chiefs acted quickly to assemble an astonishing array of firepower.
A Chinook helicopter collected SBS troops and fast assault craft from the elite unit’s HQ in Poole in Dorset, some 15 miles away, and stationed them just out of sight of the Nave Andromeda.
The frigate HMS Richmond was put on alert in the Channel and divers were assembled in case explosive mines had been placed on the ship’s hull, sources said. Shortly before the attack the captain of the tanker was asked to put the lights out and turn into the wind to prepare for the arrival of the special forces.
Storming the tanker
At around 7.30pm – just over 10 hours after the first mayday call –military chiefs ordered the attack.
A formation of helicopters swooped in, deploying a deafening din and dazzling lights, known as ‘obscurant’ tactics, to disorientate the stowaways on board. The plan was to ‘overwhelm them with the noise of the rotor discs, and put a lot of light in to blind them’, a source said.
The Special Boat Service (SBS) raided the tanker yesterday evening off the Isle of Wight after stowaways were found on board who threatened the crew. Pictured is an official on the boat
At least one Wildcat helicopter, fitted with an electro-optical device to aid its night vision, swept the deck for signs of hostile behaviour. Troops on landing craft approached and scanned the tanker with sniper rifles. Two Merlin Mk 4 helicopters then approached in ‘dark mode’ and took positions above the bow and stern of the ship.
Eight SBS troopers rappelled by rope onto the deck at each end and converged on the middle of the ship in a pincer movement.
Wearing night vision goggles with thermal imaging to detect human heat sources, the units closed in on the seven stowaways who were grouped in one place on the deck.
They were not thought to be armed and surrendered swiftly.
It took the SBS less than nine minutes to arrest the suspects, secure the tanker and lead the crew out of their panic room. Some 40 minutes later the Ministry of Defence confirmed that the forces ‘have gained control of the ship and seven individuals have been detained’. The seven Nigerians were promptly arrested on suspicion of seizing or exercising control of a ship by use of threats or force.
They all remain in custody at police stations across Hampshire.
Investigators are speaking to the crew members to establish the exact circumstances of what happened. The ship, which can carry up to 42,000 tons of crude oil, is now in the port of Southampton.
An aerial photo showing the Nave Andromeda docking at Southampton at around 2.30am following Sunday’s dramatic events
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace paid tribute to the courageous personnel who braved ‘dark skies and worsening weather’ to ensure the safety of the ship’s crew.
Former Rear Admiral Chris Parry said: ‘From the time the helicopters went in and the SBS roped on to the ship, they rounded up the people pretty quickly.
‘I think the stowaways themselves accepted this was probably the end of the journey for them and there probably wasn’t any point in resisting heavily-armed men approaching them.’
A Hampshire police spokesman said: ‘The vessel had been travelling in the direction of Southampton, having sailed from Lagos in Nigeria. It was reported that a number of stowaways were on board, and they had made threats towards the crew.
‘Following a multi-agency response by police, with support from the military and other emergency service partners, seven people were detained by police. All 22 crew members are safe and well.’
Tanker ‘hijackers’ may face a life behind bars
By David Barrett and David Churchill for the Daily Mail
Seven stowaways seized in a daring operation by special forces were last night facing lengthy jail terms for hijacking an oil tanker.
The suspects were detained under maritime laws which carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
They had allegedly threatened the 22-man crew of the 42,000-ton Nave Andromeda which was heading to Southampton from Lagos in Nigeria.
Sent in troops: Home Secretary Priti Patel gave the go-ahead during the tense hijacking on Sunday
Special Boat Service commandos stormed the tanker off the Isle of Wight on Sunday evening after the ship’s terrified captain radioed for help.
What will the police do now?
Police will build a picture of the alleged hijackers’ activities aboard the Nave Andromeda.
They are also likely to study electronic systems which record communications aboard the vessel and from ship-to-shore, known as a Voyage Data Recorder, or VDR, similar to the ‘black box’ aboard commercial aircraft.
What’s the law on hijacking and piracy?
The seven were arrested under Section 9 of the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990, which deals with hijackings. The law states: ‘A person who unlawfully, by the use of force or by threats of any kind, seizes a ship or exercises control of it, commits the offence of hijacking a ship.’
Richard Neylon, an expert in maritime law from law firm HFW, said: ‘If you try to seize control of a vessel and you have no business being aboard that vessel, the threshold is quite low under this legislation.’ The maximum sentence under the legislation is life imprisonment.
What could happen to the suspects?
Regardless of whether the Nigerians are charged with any crime, their removal from the UK is unlikely to be swift. Previous cases have shown hijackers were able to successfully challenge the Home Office.
For example, in February 2000 nine Afghan men hijacked an Ariana Afghan Airlines Boeing 727 and forced the pilot to land at Stansted. A siege involving the hijackers and 187 passengers and crew lasted five days. The hijackers were jailed but their convictions were later quashed.
In 2006, they brought legal action which allowed them to stay in Britain.
What happens to other Nigerian asylum seekers?
There were 1,279 asylum applications by Nigerians decided by the Home Office in the year to March – but the majority were refused.
Only 398 led to grants of asylum or other leave to remain, or just over 31 per cent. The rest were refused or withdrawn, Home Office data shows.
It is unclear how many of those who were refused were removed from the UK.
According to a research paper by the House of Commons Library, there were just over 26,000 asylum applications from Nigerians decided across the European Union during 2019.
Of those, just 16 per cent – or 4,795 – were granted in the first instance.
The unnamed mariner said in broken English on an open radio channel: ‘I try to keep them calm but I need immediately, immediately agency assistance.’
He added that two of the intruders were on the starboard side near the bridge, although had not managed to gain access.
In other radio messages the captain is reported to have said he feared for his life, and those of his crew.
The Greek-owned tanker, that flies the Liberian flag, had left Lagos on October 5, where the stowaways ‘illegally boarded’ the vessel, a spokesman for operator Navios Tanker Management said. The SBS operation was authorised by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Home Secretary Priti Patel. A source close to the Home Secretary said the 45 minutes during which the situation was resolved ‘felt like 45 hours’.
The heavily-armed troops descended on to the tanker by rope from four Royal Navy helicopters after nightfall.
The elite soldiers quickly rounded up the suspected hijackers and ended their mission after just nine minutes.
The seven suspected hijackers seized on Sunday night were last night being questioned in separate police stations across Hampshire after the 750ft tanker moored at Southampton.
A spokesman for Hampshire Police said: ‘It was reported that a number of stowaways were on board, and they had made threats towards the crew.’
He added: ‘All 22 crew members are safe and well and the vessel is now alongside in the port of Southampton. Investigators are speaking to the crew members to establish the exact circumstances of what happened.’
Bob Sanguinetti, chief executive of the UK Chamber of Shipping, said: ‘I think this has got all the hallmarks of a situation where a number of stowaways are seeking political asylum, presumably in the UK. At some stage they got aggressive. Clearly no one knew at the time how aggressive they were, whether they were armed or not and what their motives were.
‘In the discussions taking place between the ship’s captain and the authorities in the UK – both police and the military – they will have decided at some stage the least risky option was to board the vessel using the special forces.’
The drama echoed a previous case involving stowaways which unfolded aboard a cargo ship in the Thames Estuary in December 2018.
Four Nigerians had hidden aboard the Grande Tema in Lagos, and became disruptive as the ship entered UK waters. The four attempted to repel an SBS boarding party by threatening to infect them with HIV, but were eventually arrested and prosecuted.
At least one made ‘throat-slitting’ gestures to crew, CCTV footage played in court showed. However, after an eight week trial at the Old Bailey they were cleared of attempting to hijack the ship and convicted of affray.
Two were also found guilty of making threats to kill. They were jailed for a combined total of seven years.
That case highlights potential difficulties in securing convictions under the hijacking legislation.