Image: Migrants arrive at a detention center in Manduria, southern Italy
Lapresse  /  AP
Migrants arrive at a detention center in Manduria, southern Italy, on Sunday. Hundreds of African migrants are arriving on Italian shores aboard boats from Libya, overwhelming a tiny island already struggling to host thousands who fled Tunisia. Authorities are using Italian naval vessels to ferry illegal migrants who landed on Lampedusa island to detention centers on the mainland.
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updated 3/27/2011 11:45:20 AM ET 2011-03-27T15:45:20

Boatloads of illegal African migrants have resumed setting sail from Libya for Italy, authorities said, overwhelming tiny islands and towns in southern Italy already struggling to host thousands fleeing unrest in Tunisia.

Before dawn Sunday, Italian coast guard vessels escorted a boat crowded with 284 Somalis, Eritreans and Ethiopians to shore, the first boat to resume the long-established routes of smugglers' boats toward Italy from Libya's long coastline.

Those aboard included an Ethiopian woman who had given birth only a few hours earlier. She and the baby were flown by helicopter to a hospital on the island of Lampedusa, where doctors said mother and child were fine. Doctors said another woman on the boat, whose passengers included several babies or toddlers, suffered a miscarriage.

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Since Lampedusa, a tiny island off Sicily, is already straining from sheltering the thousands of Tunisians, who have taken to sleeping on docks and fields after housing space ran out, the boat from Libya was diverted to Linosa, an even tinier island in the Pelagie archipelago south of Sicily.

Authorities said at least two other boats coming from Libya with hundreds of migrants aboard were spotted by fishing boats or coast guard air and sea patrolling the southern Mediterranean Sunday.

The nightly voyages of clandestine migrants had slackened off in the past year or so, after Rome signed a treaty with Tripoli providing generous aid to Libya in exchange for a crackdown on the smugglers. The smugglers' runs dropped off even further with the outbreak of fighting between forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's regime and insurgents and the subsequent U.S. and European nighttime air assaults on Libyan military targets. But they now appear to be restarting.

Italy's welcome mat is wearing thin as it has already been struggling to deal with thousands of Tunisians who have arrived on Lampedusa since unrest broke out in their country.

With the number of Tunisians now surpassing the normal population of 5,000 or so on the tiny tourist and fishing island, Italian authorities on Sunday deployed both commercial ferries and Italian naval vessels to transport hundreds of migrants to detention centers on the mainland.

Sen. Maurizio Gasparri, a close conservative ally of Premier Silvio Berlusconi, said the migrants should be transported back to Tunisia rather than to the mainland.

"They are clandestine (migrants) who ran away from a country where there is no war — on the contrary, there is now more freedom than before," the Italian news agency ANSA quoted Gasparri as telling reporters.

Italian border police said in the 24 hours ending at midnight Sunday some 625 migrants, aboard five separate boats landed on Lampedusa. And hundreds had arrived earlier in the week on the island, which is closer to northern Africa than to mainland Italy.

Tunisians ineligible for political asylum will be deported. Italy, however, often grants asylum to refugees from Horn of Africa countries, including Somalia and Eritrea, like the migrants who arrived Sunday on the resumed voyages from Libya.

Last week, residents of a Sicilian town, Mineo, protested the transfer of Tunisians from Lampedusa to a shelter there after migrants trespassed in orange groves and ate some fruit. On Sunday, Mineo residents shouted angrily through a chain-link fence at the migrants that they should go back to Tunisia.

The latest transfers by ferry and the naval ship San Marco were bringing hundreds of Tunisians to Manduria, in Puglia, the "heel" of the boot-shaped Italian peninsula.

But Manduria's mayor quickly voiced worry, and ANSA quoted a Puglia official, Eupreprio Curto, as saying after visiting a tent city set up for the Tunisians that Manduria was going to turn into another Lampedusa, with health and sanitation problems.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni says towns from north to south will host some of the Tunisians pending deportation. Italy has repeatedly appealed to the rest of the European Union for help, especially since many Tunisians have told authorities they set out to escape the turmoil in their homeland in hopes of reaching relatives in France.

Federico Bricolo, a top official of the anti-immigrant Northern League — Berlusconi's main coalition partner — called for a naval blockade to keep out the migrants. League leader Umberto Bossi has scorned the government's plan to use EU funds to pay Tunisians to return to their country and set up businesses there, saying they should be deported without receiving a euro.

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

Video: Airstrikes help Libyan rebels retake key city

  1. Transcript of: Airstrikes help Libyan rebels retake key city

    LESTER HOLT, co-host: But we want to begin with a major victory for the rebels in the battle for Libya . After intense fighting, they captured a key city and they were helped by punishing airstrikes from US and coalition forces. NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel is on the ground in Ajdabiya this morning. Richard , good morning.

    RICHARD ENGEL reporting: Good morning, Lester . We are on the outskirts of Ajdabiya . This town has clearly been taken by the rebels and with considerable help. You can see behind me one of Gadhafi 's tanks that was obliterated by Western airstrikes . The rebels have actually not only taken Ajdabiya , they have pushed about 50 miles to the west of here, so advancing their front line in the past 24 hours or so. They say they will continue this until they can reach some more Gadhafi -held territory. This is a rebel now counteroffensive under way assisted by the Western airstrikes . Lester :

    HOLT: And, Richard , the NATO officials say they are not actively trying to assist the rebels , but in trying to protect civilians their bombs are obviously helping. How far can the rebels advance, and is Gadhafi 's army, in fact, crumbling?

    ENGEL: Gadhafi 's army in this area is certainly crumbling. And when you look on the ground, we've seen about 20 armored vehicles that were destroyed from the air. It seems that this is not just a defensive operation, it is clearly one aimed at helping the rebels . They can push forward for probably 50 or 60 more miles from here. Once they reach the town of Surt , they're likely to have a major battle because Surt remains a Gadhafi stronghold.

    HOLT: As you've pointed out time and time again , this is a ragtag army, not well-equipped. If they lose the support, if those NATO airstrikes don't come or slow down, what happens to the rebels ? Could they -- could they end up retreating?

    ENGEL: The rebels could end up retreating or, more likely, this could end up in a stalemate. They are clearly dependent on the Western airstrikes . As the airstrikes come through, the rebels have been marching in behind them taking Ajdabiya behind me, pushing on to Brega , and then seeing what will happen further forward. If these airstrikes stop, the rebels will likely stop, as well, and give Gadhafi 's forces an opportunity to regroup and possibly recapture this area.

    HOLT: Richard Engel in Ajdabiya this morning. Thank you very much .

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