Desperate Tunisians pile onto small Italian island

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Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini arrived in Tunis Monday to discuss joint response to the influx of boatloads of Tunisian refugees landing on the southernmost Italian island of Lampedusa after fleeing their country in the wake of the revolution that resulted in the ouster of strongman leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

Italian news reports said that 16 boats arrived on Sunday alone, the fourth day of the exodus, pushing the total number of refugees to more than 4,000 -- overwhelming the tiny island of 6,000 Italians, most of them fishermen.

On Saturday, Italy declared a humanitarian emergency on the island.

Most of the arrivals have been held in a fenced soccer field and in a few local churches. On Sunday, with facilities overloaded, the government re-opened an immigration center near the island's main marina that has been closed for two years, making space for an additional 1,900 arrivals.

But local government officials say that infrastructure on the tiny island is overwhelmed, with inadequate sewage, fresh water, and trash facilities available for the arrival of so many new people in such a short time, and they have appealed to Rome and also to Brussels for additional financial help.

As fast as they can be processed, the Tunisians are being put on ships for the island region of Sicily or the Italian mainland.

Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said the arrival was "an exodus of Biblical proportions" and said he expects new arrivals to keep setting out on the 113-kilometer journey between Tunisia's shores and Lampedusa.

"The Tunisian system is just collapsing," Maroni said in a televised interview. "The country they are leaving behind is imploding."

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, some of the arrivals are looking for work, some left because their property was destroyed or they were worried about violence, and other because they had ties to the deposed Ben Ali and they feared retribution.

The International Organization for Migration called the situation "critical" and called for Italian, European Union, and multilateral organizations to divert resources to the island " before the story becomes even more tragic."

Tunisia's interim government rushed limited security forces to coastal areas to stem the tide of its citizens from leaving for Lampedusa and other European ports, and the Italian government indicated Sunday it would ask Tunisian authorities for permission to Italian navy vessels in the water off Tunisia's coast in order to stem the tide.

As of Monday, Tunisian officials have refused to allow the Italians within their territorial waters, but Frattini is expected to discuss the matter on his arrival.

So far, Tunisia has been unable to take steps, in part because it needs security forces in the capital to stem violence there and because, just a month since Ben Ali was ousted, a full government infrastructure is still not in place.

In recent days, Tunisian Foreign Minister Ahmed Lunacies resigned, and four leading police figures were placed in jail.

Lampedusa, which has seen immigration crisis in the past, is the southernmost island in Italy, and is actually closer to Tunisian shores (113 kilometers) than it is to the southern coast of Sicily (225 kilometers), the closest large Italian landmass.

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