Police have confirmed an incident on board a vessel off the Isle of Wight following reports of an attempted hijacking of an oil tanker.
The incident is reported to have taken place aboard the Liberian-registered Nave Andromeda crude oil tanker south of Sandown, according to Isle of Wight Radio.
A Hampshire police spokesman said: “We are aware and dealing with an ongoing incident on board a vessel which is situated south of the Isle of Wight.
“We will provide you with further updates when we are in a position to do so.”
It is understood that the 228-metre tanker had been expected to dock in Southampton at 10.30am on Sunday.
The Nave Andromeda had sailed from Lagos, Nigeria, on October 5, according to maritime tracking websites.
A spokeswoman for Associated British Ports (ABP) said it had no comment on the incident.
It is understood the port received contact from the ship but it had not been refused entry to the harbour.
Two coastguard helicopters have been scrambled to the scene and were spotted circling the ship on Sunday afternoon, and an exclusion zone was set up in the area south of Sandown.
A coastguard spokeswoman said: “We are currently assisting Hampshire Constabulary with an incident on board a vessel situated off the Isle of Wight.
“The search and rescue helicopters from Lee on Solent and Lydd are in attendance.”
A spokeswoman for the Home Office said it is aware of the incident.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman confirmed there was no military involvement in the incident.
Bob Seely, Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight, said the incident would be treated as a “marine counter-terrorism” incident and a meeting of the government Cobra emergency committee would be held to discuss the response.
He said he expected specialist units to be scrambled to handle the situation.
He told Sky News: “Despite being told not to drop anchor, the skipper has dropped anchor and the ship may be now under the control of stowaways on the ship.
“I suspect because of the nature of this it will be treated as marine counter-terrorism and the number of people in the UK who do that are very limited and the relevant units will be looking at options no doubt as to what we could be doing.”
A UK Chamber of Shipping spokesman said: “We are aware of an incident onboard the Nave Andromeda off the Isle of Wight and are in contact with the relevant authorities. We believe it is likely to be related to stowaways onboard but are awaiting more information.”
Mick Cash, general secretary of the maritime union RMT, said: “We urge the UK Government to do all it can to prevent any harm coming to crew or anyone else on the Nave Andromeda.
“This is a troubling incident which must not escalate to further jeopardise crew welfare or maritime safety in what is an extremely busy area for merchant shipping.
“We must call on all parties, including the Greek shipowner to take action to resolve this incident safely and quickly.”
Richard Meade, managing editor of shipping news journal Lloyd’s List, said he had received information that there were seven stowaways on board who had become violent when the crew attempted to lock them in a cabin.
He said it was understood that the stowaways had been onboard since the ship left Nigeria, although it had also made anchorage stops in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands and south of Sant Nazaire, France.
Mr Meade wrote on the Lloyd’s List website: “Seven stowaways understood to have boarded the vessel from various ports became violent when the vessels crew attempted to lock them in a cabin, according to a senior official from the Liberian flag.
“The stowaways had no documentation when they were discovered by the crew, however if they did board in Nigeria that implies they had been on board the vessels for nearly 20 days before being discovered.”
Mr Meade told the PA news agency: “The information I have got is that it was a case of stowaways being discovered on board and when the crew tried to get them into a cabin and tried to get their information, there was no documentation.
“They tried to get them into a cabin and that’s when the stowaways got violent – that doesn’t strike me as a hijacking, it’s a matter of stowaways.”
Mr Meade said the crew had been in contact with officials of the Liberian ship register suggesting they were still in control of the ship.
He said: “I have this information from the Liberian ship register so if the crew and the skipper have communicated this level of detail… that suggests that they are in a position to be in communication and therefore they are in control and this is not a serious incident.”
The BBC has also reported that lawyers for the shipowners had said the incident was “100% not a hijacking”.
A Hampshire police spokesman said: “At 10.04am today (25 October) concerns were raised to police for the welfare of crew on board the Nave Andromeda – a vessel situated approximately six miles off the coast of Bembridge, Isle of Wight.
“The vessel had been travelling in the direction of Southampton.
“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, is currently in place near the vessel.
“Police are currently working closely with our partners, including the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and Border Force, to bring this incident to a safe conclusion.”