Authorities did an “exemplary job” rescuing the crew onboard a tanker hijacked off the Isle of Wight, Matt Hancock has said.
Seven people have been detained after about 16 Special Boat Service (SBS) commandos boarded the Nave Andromeda on Sunday night and regained control of the vessel.
“I can confirm the crew are safe and the operation to secure the vessel concluded successfully,” Mr. Hancock told Sky News.
He added: “I would like to pay tribute to the police and armed forces who did such an exemplary job… this is what they train for and this is what they’re there for, to protect our country and they did that to such a high standard.”
Hampshire Police received reports that a “number of stowaways” were on board and had made “verbal threats towards the crew” soon after 10am on Sunday as the ship headed towards Southampton, having set sail from Lagos in Nigeria.
The raid on the tanker was authorised by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Home Secretary Priti Patel after a tense 10-hour stand-off and in response to the “suspected hijacking”, the MoD said.
The SBS and two Royal Navy Merlin helicopters were involved, along with two Royal Navy Wildcat helicopters.
According to maritime tracking websites, the 228-metre long ship reached port in Southampton early on Monday morning.
The Ministry of Defence said: “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.”
The SBS is the elite maritime counter-terrorism unit of the Royal Navy, with most of its personnel Royal Marine Commandos who, the MoD says, “specialise in daring undercover raids that exploit the element of surprise”.
SBS operations are highly classified and not officially confirmed, but when stowaways ran amok on a cargo ship in the Thames Estuary in December 2018, the ship’s operator said they were detained after SBS personnel were airlifted onto the vessel.
On Sunday, The Times reported four military helicopters – thought to have included two Merlin Mk 4s, a Wildcat and a Chinook – took 40 personnel to the scene of the suspected hijack aboard the Nave Andromeda.
The newspaper quoted a defence source as saying about 16 members of the SBS boarded the vessel backed by airborne snipers and secured it in nine minutes.
Sky News defence correspondent Alistair Bunkall said the “textbook” operation was “pretty swift” and what is known in military terms as a “flash to bang”.
Ms Patel said: “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.”
Before the armed forces action, Hampshire Police said the vessel had been located around six miles off the coast of Bembridge on the Isle of Wight, adding: “It was reported that a number of stowaways were on board, and they had made verbal threats towards the crew. No one has been reported injured.”
An exclusion zone with a three-mile radius was placed around the vessel, with two coastguard helicopters spotted circling the ship in the afternoon.