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Europe ready to help Italy stem Tunisia exodus

(BRUSSELS) - European authorities said Sunday they were ready to help Italy cope with the "exceptional pressure" of an exodus of thousands of illegal immigrants from post-revolutionary Tunisia.

The European Union responded to what Rome declared a humanitarian emergency just hours before its chief diplomat, Catherine Ashton, was to visit Tunisia a month after the ouster of strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

After Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government declared it wanted to move Italian forces onto Tunisian territory to stop tide of immigrants, a spokeswoman said EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem "is fully aware of the exceptional pressure on Italy."

That followed talks on Saturday with Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, from Italy's anti-immigration Northern League party, who has said the country needs urgent help to cope.

"Commissioner Malmstroem is in contact with the Frontex agency and with the European asylum support office to examine how they can assist the Italian authorities," the spokeswoman added.

Frontex is a Warsaw-based European agency that marshalls special resources such as helicopters or coastguard reinforcements to patrol the borders of the EU, home to half a billion people.

Not all EU nations participate, with Britain a notable absentee.

Italy sounded the alarm late on Friday and Maroni was less than impressed with the speed of partners' response.

"Europe is not doing anything... As usual we're on our own," he said, revealing he would ask for permission to send in Italian forces "to intervene in Tunisia to block the influx."

Tunisia's new foreign minister resigned Sunday just over two weeks into the job and days before a planned visit to Italy. Late Sunday the Tunisian government announced it had sent in security forces to control the exodus.

On Saturday the EU would only confirm it was in receipt of an Italian plea for assistance and it was "monitoring" developments.

By Sunday early evening, though, the commission said Malmstroem was also mobilising asylum support networks -- that after Maroni said he had asked for "urgent" EU intervention "because the Maghreb is exploding."

Italian coastguards intercepted another 1,000 immigrants from the North African state overnight Saturday, taking to some 5,000 the number who have landed on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, just 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Tunisia, saying they are fleeing poverty.

Good sailing weather has been partly blamed for the dramatic upsurge.

A spokesman later told AFP that Ashton would assess the position on the ground on Monday but stressed that her trip was focused on the need for democratic reforms in Tunisia and not the immigration issue.

The High Representative for foreign affairs will host a press conference in Tunis at 1600 GMT on Monday.

EU justice and home affairs ministers are expected to address the immigration headache at their next meeting on February 24.

In November last year Greece became the first EU country to ask for help from the EU's Rapid Border Intervention Teams after hundreds of migrants from north Africa and war zones such as Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan began flooding through the porous Greek-Turkish border.

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