Berlusconi: Migrants to leave Lampedusa in 48 hours

Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi in Lampedusa(30 March 2011) Mr Berlusconi had earlier described the immigrants as "poor wretches"

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Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi has promised that the island of Lampedusa will soon be free of migrants.

Thousands of people have arrived on the island south of Sicily since January, travelling from Tunisia and Libya.

Officials say sanitary conditions have become "desperate" and islanders have staged protests at the town hall.

On a visit to the island, Mr Berlusconi announced to a crowd that in "48 to 60 hours Lampedusa will be inhabited only by Lampedusans".

About 20,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean since the upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East began in January.

Emergency

Some 6,000 migrants - more than the total population of the island - are now living there in makeshift camps.

There were no new arrivals on Tuesday night, Italian media reported, the first night with no new immigrants for some time.

On Wednesday morning, five ships arrived, sent by the Italian government to Lampedusa to take migrants to camps on the mainland. One of the ships was the naval vessel San Marco and the rest were civilian ferries, reports said. Another boat was expected later.

Mr Berlusconi's plane arrived on the island shortly after 1300 local time.

Lampedusa map

After meeting the regional governor and mayor of Lampedusa, he addressed a crowd of islanders outside the town hall, promising a series of measures including tax breaks and welfare benefits.

He also said there would be a plan to relaunch Lampedusa's tourist industry, which has been badly hit by the influx from North Africa.

The previous evening, he had described the immigrants arriving on Lampedusa as "poor wretches" fleeing a world without freedom and democracy.

Although most of the immigrants on the island are expected to be transferred to Sicily or camps on mainland Italy, negotiations are said to be under way to repatriate a number of people to Tunisia.

Most of the arrivals since January have sailed from Tunisia, but in recent days boats have come from Libya as well.

'Nobel peace prize'

To cheers from the crowd, Mr Berlusconi announced that he had bought a house on the island and even suggested that he would nominate Lampedusa for the Nobel peace prize.

An Italian policeman watches over migrants on the island of Lampedusa (29 March 2011) Some 20,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean since the upheavals began

"I will become Lampedusan," he said. The Ansa news agency reported that he later went to visit the villa in question.

Angrier words came from Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who complained about the handling of the crisis by the EU and France.

"Europe has been absolutely inactive on this," he told SkyTG24 TV, adding that "very limited funds" had been forthcoming from Brussels.

An EU spokesman responded, saying that 18m euros (£15.8m, $25m) had been given to Rome for repatriations in the past year, on top of emergency funds handed to all EU member states.

Mr Frattini accused France of a lack of solidarity by sending back Tunisian migrants who had tried to cross the Italian border with France at Ventimiglia.

Hundreds of Tunisians who landed at Lampedusa have moved on to reception centres on the mainland and have then travelled to north-west Italy in an attempt to enter France.

The foreign minister said it was "well known that 80% of those arriving in Lampedusa speak French and maybe have relatives in French cities".

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