Image: Migrants wait to board a ship to Italy
Daniele La Monaca  /  AP
A Carabinieri police officer watches migrants as they wait to board a ship toward Porto Empedocle, in Sicily, for document checks. Thousands of people fleeing Tunisia have reached Italian shores over the past few days.
updated 2/15/2011 2:38:34 PM ET 2011-02-15T19:38:34

Tunisian migrants marched through this tiny Sicilian island on Tuesday to thank Italy for welcoming them, but the government and EU moved to stem the exodus of North African migrants to Europe.

The migrant flight was prompted by clashes between police and protesters in Tunisia that forced its president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, to flee to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, and inspired the uprisings in Egypt and beyond.

Some 2,000 of the 5,337 Tunisians who arrived in recent days remained on Lampedusa, a tiny island with a permanent population of about 6,000 that is closer to Africa than the Italian mainland, awaiting transfer to immigrant holding centers elsewhere in Italy.

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"We want to thank all the Italians and the people from Lampedusa because they gave housing and food to 5,000 people and they were very nice to us," said Zawhir Kermiti, a 32-year-old who was one of a few dozen people who marched Tuesday. He and others arrived in Sicily in fishing boats from Tunisia.

Overnight, Italian authorities intercepted a boat of 32 people believed to be from Egypt off the coast of Ragusa on Sicily, indicating that the exodus was not confined to Tunisia alone.

"The institutional earthquake that took place in Egypt could provoke significant immigration flows," Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni warned Tuesday. "Europe cannot remain indifferent: it must take a strong and decisive political decision."

Italy has arrested 26 people who operated the boats and seized 41 vessels. Identity checks have found some of the arrivals were criminals who escaped from Tunisian jails in the chaos, Maroni said.

Story: Mideast upheaval timeline

He spoke at a news conference in the Sicilian city of Catania, where he and Premier Silvio Berlusconi toured a NATO military residence with a capacity of 7,000 people that the government is considering turning into a "village" for possible asylum-seekers.

Immigrants 'not creating any trouble'
Lampedusa Mayor Bernardino Rubeis has said that the Tunisians have mostly been respectful and that the situation is under control.

"There is no security emergency because they are free to walk around the island, but they are respecting our territory, not creating any trouble," he said.

On Tuesday, many of new arrivals awaited ferries to take them from Lampedusa to immigrant holding centers elsewhere in Sicily or on the Italian mainland.

"It took 30 hours from Djerba to here. It wasn't very dangerous. We were 260 people on this boat," said Samir, a 24-year-old Tunisian who asked not to give his last name. Djerba is an island located off the coast of Tunisia.

He spoke as he and others picked through the wreckage of their fishing boats that have been hauled out of the harbor and piled in a sort of boat cemetery near a soccer field. Among the debris in the boats are blankets, gloves and cell phone battery chargers.

No boats arrived overnight on Lampedusa, primarily because of poor weather.

Biblical exodus
But Maroni, who has said the exodus was of "biblical" proportions, said he had no illusions that the onslaught was over.

"So far, the (Tunisian) border controls have stopped four boats and turned them back, but 47 more escaped the controls," Maroni said.

He said he planned to meet with his counterparts in France, Spain, Malta, Greece and Cyprus in the coming days to decide on further immediate measures to take. He said Italy alone needed some €100 million from EU funds to confront the emergency over the next three months.

EU Commission spokesman Michele Cercone said the EU had received a letter from Italy listing its needs and that the EU was looking to give Italy aid through its refugee and border fund.

On Monday, the EU announced a €258 million ($347 million) aid package to Tunisia from now until 2013, with €17 million ($22.9 million) of that to be delivered immediately. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, visiting Tunisia, said the funds were a gift, not a loan.

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Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini met with Tunisian authorities Monday night in Tunis and concurred that Tunisia was responsible for patrolling its coast but that European border agency Frontex should beef up its presence in international waters. Tunisia had strongly rejected an offer by Maroni for Italian police contingents to help patrol the coast.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem late Tuesday declared the exodus a "matter of importance for the whole EU," and said Frontex had sent two experts to the scene.

Frattini said Italy cannot accept everyone who arrives, but at the same time must help Tunisia and other North African countries create conditions so young people don't feel the need to flee.

"We can't package them up and send them back home," Frattini said Tuesday. "We have to help them reintegrate themselves" with economic help.

After his visit, Tunisia's TAP news agency reported that Italy would provide €5 million ($6.8 million) in emergency aid to Tunisia, as well as radar equipment and patrol boats to the Tunisian military, and offer a €100 million ($135 million) credit line.

It's unclear whether this is part of the overall EU package announced Monday.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Egypt’s revolution ripples across the Middle East

  1. Closed captioning of: Egypt’s revolution ripples across the Middle East

    >> the latest on the uprising in egypt that led to protest in bahrain , yemen .

    >> lawmakers appeared determined to stop demonstrators before they gained momentum. we'll get the late nest a live report ahead.

    >> also ahead, breaking news overnight from italy. the italian prime minister has been ordered to stand trial for allegedly paying for sex with a 17-year-old girl and then trying to cover it up. we'll have details on the story as well.

    >> plus, we'll meet the cover model for the sports illustrated swim suit issue when she stopped by for her first interview since learning the big news.

    >> a huge event in the life of a model. she's already pretty famous.

    >> in your life.

    >> come february, after the super bowl , baseball hasn't started yet.

    >> we'll begin with the ripple effect from protests in egypt and other parts of the middle east . richard engel is in cairo with the latest. good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning. the iranian opposition has been energized and inspired by what happened here in egypt , but the government in iran is determined not to allow any new protests, calling them riots. thousands demonstrated on monday in sole dare ti with egypt and to apparently restart an uprising crushed by the iranian government after disputed elections in 2009 . iran is determined not to allow a new round of protests to take root. nbc's tehran bureau chief reported from the bureau in the iranian capital.

    >> they tried to disperse the crowds but the crowd wouldn't go away. the protesters tried to make their way to freedom square to try to emulate the sit-in at tahrir square. they were confronted by the militia who beat them back. today, members of iran 's parliament called for the execution of opposition leaders.

    >> reporter: iran 's new round of demonstrations are just one of a growing number in the region inspired by egypt . on the tiny island nation of bahrain , home to the u.s. navy 's fifth fleet, thousands of protesters opposing the monarchy clashed with riot police for a second day. two people have been killed already in the unrest here including one ott a funeral. the deaths raised the chances of further unrest that could open a painful sectarian divide, all too familiar in the middle east . bahrain has a sunni monarchy but a 70% shiite population, almost the same split as in iraq. in yemen at the tip of the arabian peninsula , protests continue for a fifth day. like in egypt , yemen 's demonstrators want to topple their president of three decades, accusing him of corruption, but yemen is more unstable than egypt . yemen is already fighting two civil wars and has an active al qaeda cell that sent mail bombs to the united states last october on cargo planes. a collapse of the u.s.-backed yemen government could lead to anarc anarchy. in egypt , the protests are over. the army has taken control, removed demonstrators from the square and promises to transition to democracy over the next six months. the demonstrators who organized the revolution in egypt tell us they are in contact with other protesters around the region offering advice and support. meredith?

Interactive: The Egypt effect


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