Berlusconi vows to evacuate African migrants from island

PREMIER Silvio Berlusconi has promised to evacuate the thousands of North African migrants who have overwhelmed the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, earning cheers from residents exasperated by the arrivals.

A navy ship and a commercial ferry arrived in the morning, and at least three more were expected throughout the day to pick up the migrants, said Cosimo Alessandro Nicastro, commander of the Italian Coast Guard. The ships will move some to temporary shelters elsewhere in Italy.

“Within 48 to 60 hours Lampedusa will be inhabited only by Lampedusa residents,” Berlusconi said.

The premier was on his first visit to the island of 5,000 residents since the migrant crisis broke in January as unrest spread across North Africa. Some 18,000 migrants, mostly Tunisian, have arrived on the island, overwhelming the local immigrant centre, and forcing many to sleep in makeshift tent camps or in fields as they wait for transfers.

He said an evacuation plan was in place as of midnight, and ships on their way had a capacity of up to 10,000 people. The plan also included pledges by Tunisia to increase patrol of their ports and coastline and to take back at least some of the migrants, Berlusconi said.

The premier promised incentives to fishermen and tax breaks and a new urban plan to fed-up residents of the island, which is closer to North Africa than to mainland Italy. He even said he would put the island up for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The premier drew another cheer when he said he had just bought a mansion on the island. The ANSA news agency said he went to see the villa during his visit.

Many of the migrants have already been transferred to other centres in Italy, but about 6,000 remain on the island. Newspaper reports said about a third of them have been left without food because authorities on the island only have enough to feed 4,000.

Tensions were high with many of the island’s residents staging protests on Monday at the harbour and docks.

Within the government, too, the crisis is creating some tension, with the anti-immigrant Northern League party pushing for quick repatriations.

Italy has asked fellow European nations to share the burden and take in some of the migrants.

Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the migrant issue was raised at a meeting in London after talks on the Libya crisis. Frattini said that, according to a decade- old EU directive: “When there’s an abnormal, sudden flow of homeless ... the EU must adopt measures for temporary protection that include the distribution of the homeless.”

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