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Tunisia promises to help stem flow of illegal migrants

Video by Luke BROWN

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-02-14

Tunisia has said it is prepared to work with foreign governments to help curb the flow of migrants seeking refuge in Italy following last month’s regime change, though warning that it will not tolerate foreign interference in its internal affairs.

AFP - Tunisia said it was ready to work with foreign governments to stem a wave of immigrants heading across the Mediterranean as it hosted talks Monday with the chief diplomats of the European Union and Italy.

Around 5,000 asylum-seekers have landed on the remote Italian island of Lampedusa in the past week, most of them fleeing Tunisia after last month's revolution, leading the government in Rome to declare a humanitarian emergency.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's interior minister triggered a diplomatic row at the weekend by calling for Italian police to be sent to north Africa to tackle the problem at its root.

The Tunis government called his comments "unacceptable", albeit to be expected from someone with a fascist background.

But in a statement issued Monday, Tunisia said it was willing to "cooperate with fraternal countries in order to identify solutions to this phenomenon".

The foreign ministry statement also insisted that the government would not tolerate "any interference in its internal affairs or any attack on its sovereignty."

The more emollient tone from Tunis on Monday came as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton arrived and ahead of a visit later in the day by Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.

Speaking ahead of his arrival, Frattini said that the Italian government was ready to help its Tunisian counterparts.

"I think that Tunisia and Italy have a common interest to curb this traffic and Italy can offer much to Tunisia," he said.

Frattini said that Italy could offer "logistics help in terms of police equipment and substantial resources, both terrestrial and naval, for the control of the Tunisian coast."

"Until now the system of patrolling the coasts of Northern Africa has worked and we want to re-establish the technique, which had reduced illegal immigration to zero until a month ago."

Frattini is due to meet with Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi later Monday as part of a long-planned tour of the Arab world which will also take him to Syria and Jordan.

The wave of immigrants is also expected to be one of the main items on the agenda when Ashton holds talks with senior government officials.

While there has been a long history of immigration from Tunisia to Italy, there has been a dramatic acceleration in the month since Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country's president of 23 years, was toppled in a popular uprising.

Nearly all have headed for Lampedusa, which at just 110 kilometres (68 miles) from Tunisian shores, is closer to North Africa than to Italy.

The authorities on the island, which usually has just 6,000 residents, have been overwhelmed by the influx.

Italy has begun airlifting and shipping many of the immigrants from Lampedusa to detention centres in Sicily and on mainland Italy, but police estimate that more than 2,000 of them remain on the island.

Some have been put up in local hotels and officials on Sunday re-opened an immigrant detention centre. Around 1,500 immigrants -- almost all men -- have been sleeping in the open.

With the post-Ben Ali government struggling to impose its authority, Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, a member of the anti-immigration Northern League party, declared on Sunday that "the Tunisian system is collapsing."

"I will ask Tunisia's foreign minister for authorisation for our forces to intervene in Tunisia to block the flux," he said in a television interview.

However Tunisian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abderraouf Ounaies, who was expected to visit Italy on Thursday, resigned abruptly on Sunday after just over two weeks in the job.

"I have asked for urgent intervention by the European Union because the Maghreb is exploding," Maroni said, referring to the North Africa region.

A spokesman said European Union home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem "is fully aware of the exceptional pressure on Italy" and was looking at ways to assist the Italian authorities.

Date created : 2011-02-14


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