LAMPEDUSA, Italy — Italy said on Sunday it was planning to deploy its security forces in Tunisia to stop a wave of immigrant arrivals, as coastguards intercepted another 1,000 immigrants from the North African state.
"I will ask Tunisia's foreign minister for authorisation for our forces to intervene in Tunisia to block the flux," Interior Minister Roberto Maroni of the anti-immigration Northern League party said in a television interview.
"The Tunisian system is collapsing," said Maroni, speaking ahead of Tunisian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abderraouf Ounais's visit expected on Thursday.
"I have asked for urgent intervention by the European Union because the Maghreb is exploding," Maroni added, referring to the North Africa region.
"Europe is not doing anything.... As usual we're on our own," he said.
A total of around 5,000 Tunisian migrants have landed on dozens of small fishing boats in the past five days on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, which usually has just 6,000 residents and is struggling to cope.
"It's out of control," Lampedusa mayor Bernardino De Rubeis told reporters as boats continued to arrive on the tiny island, which at just 110 kilometres (68 miles) from Tunisian shores is closer to North Africa than to Italy.
A calm sea and good weather have favoured conditions for the Mediterranean crossings, which come after the fall of Tunisia's veteran ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14 and the ensuing weeks of social unrest and lawlessness.
Italian authorities have begun airlifting many of the undocumented immigrants from Lampedusa to detention centres in Sicily and on mainland Italy, but police estimate that more than 2,000 of them remain on the island.
Hundreds have had to sleep out in the open at the port because of a lack of facilities on the island, while others have been put up in local hotels.
"The situation is very difficult," the harbour master, Antonio Morana, told reporters. He said 977 people had landed so far on Sunday and more were coming.
Italy's cabinet on Saturday declared a humanitarian emergency in the area.
A government statement said that the decision to call an official emergency would enable civil protection officers "to take immediate action needed to control this phenomenon and assist citizens who have fled from North Africa."
In comments to the Corriere della Sera daily on Sunday, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said: "We have to mobilise Mediterranean countries that have boats, planes and helicopters" to patrol the Tunisian coastline.
Frattini and Maroni appealed for immediate assistance from the European Union's Warsaw-based border security agency, Frontex.
Maroni said that immigrants were fleeing poverty but that there were also escaped convicts and "figures from terrorist organisations" among them.
A young Tunisian migrant, meanwhile, drowned and another was reported missing when a boat carrying 12 people sank on Saturday off southeast Tunisia en route to Europe, the official Tunisian TAP agency said.