A state of emergency has been declared by the Italian government after 5,000 illegal immigrants fleeing riot-torn Tunisia arrived in just five days.
Coastguard officials said that in just one 12-hour period 977 had arrived, with many more boats seen on radar screens approaching from north Africa.
The vessels carrying the illegal immigrants had all arrived on the tiny volcanic island of Lampedusa, which is just 60 miles from the Tunisian coast and the lone accommodation centre was struggling to cope.
Extra coastguard and navy patrols were dispatched to the waters between Lampedusa and Tunisia in an attempt to block the influx.
On Sunday, Tunisia sent security forces to coastal areas to stop the exodus.
Roberto Maroni, the interior minister, said the emergency had been declared because they feared “possible terrorists” had infiltrated the illegal immigrants and would then slip into the country.
He added that there was a risk that some of those who were trying to enter Italy could have come from prisons that were stormed during the unrest last month and had escaped.
Maurizio Massari, a foreign ministry spokesman, said: “The influx of illegal immigrants from Tunisia needs to be dealt with utmost urgency for national security.
“There is the possibility of infiltration by criminals who have escaped from prison or terrorists trying to get into Europe via our shores – that’s why we need a European response.
“Italy has asked for an urgent meeting with the European Council of Justice and Internal Affairs to coordinate a European response to this new emergency.”
To cope with the vast numbers many of the illegal immigrants were being ferried to the nearby larger island of Sicily where there were more accommodation centres.
Calm seas meant that dozens of boats were making the short crossing – which is the equivalent of travelling from London to Brighton – and more were expected in the coming days.
Lampedusa harbour master Antonio Morena said: “We have had hundreds and hundreds of people arrive, more than we can cope with and they are being moved on by sea and air to Sicily.
“The sea is calm and the weather is good and so that means the boats will keep coming – we can see them on the radar screens and the last time we looked there were at least another ten.”
The influx comes after the fall of Tunisia’s veteran ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14 and the ensuing weeks of social unrest and lawlessness.
One woman trying to flee to Italy said: “The situation in Tunisia is still very bad. Prices are going up, there is unrest and there is still violence. Women are being raped and people are being robbed.”
Tunisia’s foreign minister, Ahmed Ounaies, resigned. The 75-year-old retired diplomat joined the reshuffled transition government formed on January 27 by Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi.
In the first government of national unity announced on January 17 he had been appointed secretary of state at the foreign ministry.
He had barely resumed work since returning from a visit to France on February 4, diplomatic sources said.
He had been heckled by foreign ministry staff on February 7 demonstrating outside and inside the ministry demanding his immediate departure after the Paris visit, as a result of which he took his personal belongings and left.
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