Hundreds of Africans reach Italy in boats

ROME (AP) - 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.

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 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)