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Colleen Barry the Associated Press
Published: 09 April 2011

MILAN (AP) -- After days of fierce sparring, Italy and France patched up their differences Friday over the fate of thousands of Tunisian migrants, avoiding a major rift over European Union border control rules.

Tunisians Flee to Italy, The Skanner News Video here

The two neighbors agreed to joint sea-and-air patrols to block any new North African migrants from sailing to European shores.

France also promised to honor temporary residency documents that Rome plans to issue to Tunisian migrants who have already flooded Italy in recent months. But Paris insisted the migrants must be able to prove they can financially support themselves - a condition that could prove insurmountable to thousands hoping to live in France, Tunisia's former colonial ruler.

Top security officials from Italy and France sought a conciliatory tone as they struggled with the crush of more than 20,000 Tunisians who sailed on often rickety boats to Italy's southernmost point, the tiny Mediterranean island of Lampedusa.

On Friday, Italy deported the first 30 Tunisians under an accord it reached with the government in Tunis earlier in the week, the Tunisian Interior Ministry reported. At the same time, though, a boatload of an estimated 500 migrants, believed to be mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, arrived on Lampedusa from Libya, state-run RAI television reported.

On the eve of the meeting, Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni had threatened to have France thrown out of the Schengen agreement - the border rules that link much of Europe into a visa-free travel zone - if it did not allow the free circulation of Tunisians carrying temporary Italian residency permits.

France, for its part, had vowed to tighten border controls against an influx of Tunisians - moves that could have violated Europe's visa-free border arrangement.

Italy has complained bitterly that it has been stuck with the logistical and financial nightmare of accommodating the illegal migrants, most of them from Tunisia and hoping to reach relatives already in France. While a few claim they are fleeing political instability, Italy says most aren't seeking asylum but a better life in Europe.

At the same time Italy has been coping with the exodus, it has been participating in the NATO-led enforcement of the no-fly zone over Libya and working diplomatically to end the conflict.

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini will meet with Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the head of the Libyan opposition's interim governing council, in his first foreign visit since the uprising began, the Foreign Ministry said.

French Interior Minister Claude Guenant appeared sympathetic to Italy's immigrant dilemma, saying France would allow free circulation of migrants with a valid short-term Italian residency permit. But he said the migrants must meet all of the Schengen terms, meaning they must have financial resources as well as documents.

The ministers did not take any questions after their brief statements, and it was not clear how many Tunisian migrants would be able to convince French authorities they would not be a drain on the nation's coffers.

Both sides said they would work to prevent more Tunisians from fleeing in smugglers' boats from their homeland to Italy.

"We have agreed on developing common action," specifically joint sea and air patrols, Maroni said.

The two ministers also pledged to encourage immigrants with the temporary permits from Italy to head back to Tunisia on what Maroni called a "voluntary" basis. No further details on that concept were offered.

Maroni had already vowed to deport migrants who arrived on Lampedusa after Italy finalized an immigration deal with Tunisia earlier this week, unless they were eligible for asylum or because they have a job waiting.

Italy transferred thousands of the Tunisians from Lampedusa to camps on the mainland, but hundreds ran away from the camps and headed straight to the French border.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi's government has appealed for solidarity by fellow European Union nations on accepting the migrants, and Maroni echoed that stance.

"(It's) not a French-Italian question but one that must be settled on a European level," Maroni said.

Germany said Friday would take some of the migrants arriving from North Africa, offering to take in 100 refugees currently in Malta.

An EU island nation of about 400,000, Malta insists it cannot handle a large number of migrants. It has frequently turned to Italy's coast guard boats or air force planes to patrol the waters between Europe and North Africa and help rescue migrant boats that run into trouble in stormy seas.

While the number of migrants on tiny Lampedusa has been whittled down from thousands to a few dozen, more boats of illegal migrants kept coming to other Italian shores.

Coast guard official Vittorio Alessandro, interviewed in Lampedusa by Sky TG 24, said authorities arrested three smugglers who had abandoned 53 illegal migrants Friday just outside the port of Pantelleria, another Sicilian island near the Tunisian coast. The passengers, who might have been thrown into the water before the smugglers tried to get away in the boat, were rescued, he said.

The nationalities of those new migrants were not immediately known.


Frances D'Emilio contributed to this report from Rome.

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