Armed migrants are threatening the crew of an Italian ship off the Kent coast, demanding the vessel be moved nearer the shore so they can swim to Britain.

The crew of the Grande Tema, a 770-foot cargo ship on its way to the UK from Nigeria, found four stowaways on board this week and locked them in a cabin.

But they broke out this morning armed with iron bars and brandished them at the crew who had fed and looked after them.

The crew quickly locked themselves on the ship’s bridge and sent out an alert to the coastguard in scenes reminiscent of 2013 blockbuster Captain Philips, in which Tom Hanks’s character is confronted by pirates at his vessel’s controls. 

British police were deployed out to sea in the hope of taking back control after receiving the signal.

The Grande Tema, an Italian-registered container ship, is circling in the English Channel after migrant stowaways were found on board and demanded crew move the ship to shore

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 

This map shows the journey of the boat on which armed migrants are currently threatening a crew off the English coast 

Close-ups of the ship’s movements (green) show it repeatedly turning around during the day

The group have armed themselves with iron bars and have taken over the weather deck

The crew of 27 Italian and Filipino personnel are holed up in the control tower, Paul Kyprianou, a spokesman for the ship’s operator, told MailOnline, as they await police.

‘They threatened the crew, they picked up what was around like iron tubing,’ he said. ‘They wanted to get closer to the shore so they could make their way to the UK. It is a quite a tense situation.

‘They were found on board four days ago and were locked in a cabin. The crew have been feeding them under international regulations.

‘They feared they might break free, which they now have. The crew are now waiting for the police to board the ship.’ 

He told Sky News: ‘We found four stowaways on the vessel. The vessel was coming from Nigeria and was bound to Tilbury and those four stowaways were in the cabin, and today they managed to escape from the cabin and they started threatening the crew, requesting the master of the vessel navigating very close to the coast.

‘That request was probably because they wanted to jump and reach the British coast.

‘The crew reacted and they locked themselves in the bridge of the vessel and so they are safe, we haven’t had any injuries.

‘The master is in continuous contact with the UK authorities, particularly with the Essex police and the coastguard. We are waiting to see what is going to happen, we expect authorities to intervene.’

The migrants are on the ship’s weather deck trying to negotiate with the captain, it is understood. 

The nationality of the men is not known and the captain of the ship is still reportedly in charge.

The 71,543 tonne ship, which is based in the Sicilian city of Palermo, is carrying cars, vans and earth-moving equipment to the UK.

It had been travelling to the huge container port at Tilbury after leaving Lagos, Nigeria on December 10. 

It has not made any stops since, leading owners to believe the migrants snuck onboard in Lagos.

A photo taken off the coast of Margate today. Many container ships put down anchor in the area on their way up the Thames Estuary

Shipping monitoring sites show the position of the vessel just north of the town of Margate

Dover-based marine photographer Nigel Scutt was one of the first alerted to what was going on.

‘I had calls from two separate sources,’ he said. ‘One said it was stowaways on board.

‘But the other said that stowaways had come out and made their presence known and have taken over areas of the ship or the vessel itself and threatened the crew in the process.

‘If that is the case then that is piracy. You normally hear of this off the Horn of Africa – not the Thames Estuary.’ 

Dover Strait Shipping reported just after 11am: ‘BREAKING: Piracy in the Thames Estuary… Reports coming in of stowaways aboard Grande Tema threatening the crew. Incident is ongoing.’

The Grande Tema had previously docked in Benin, Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Morocco. It is not known where the stowaways boarded but Mr Scutt added that the ship, which usually transports containers and heavy machinery, had ‘plenty of hiding places’.

The number of piracy incidents in the Horn of Africa more than trebled between 2015 and 2017 – up from 16 cases to 54. However, the majority of these involved being boarded by raiding parties.

The increase has led to rising operational costs in rerouting, increasing speed when faced with suspicious boats, and taking out kidnap and ransom insurance.

In 2014, 35 Afghan Sikhs, including 13 children, were found ‘screaming and banging’ inside a shipping container in Tilbury that had arrived from Belgium.

One man died and the others were treated in hospital for severe dehydration and hypothermia after their 4,000-mile journey.

British Police insist Friday’s incident is not being treated as a ‘hostage, piracy or terror related incident’. 

Over the last two days, the ship has moved up through the English Channel, before the incident this morning. It had originally come from Lagos, in Nigeria

An Essex Police spokesman said only: ‘We continue to deal with a complex incident on board a vessel that is in the Thames Estuary close to the Essex and Kent borders. 

‘This follows a call relating to the safety of crew on board at around 9am today.

‘We have received no reports that anyone had been harmed and don’t believe they are at risk.

‘We are not currently treating this as either a hostage, piracy or terror-related incident.’

The police spokesman added: ‘We are working working closely with our partners to resolve this incident as quickly as possible.

‘We are not in a position to provide any details about who is on board at this stage.’ 

The huge ship continues to circle off the Kent coast. Both the Home Office and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency have declined to comment on the incident, saying Essex Police were in charge. 

It was travelling at a steady speed, but kept changing speed after the stowaways were found

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