ROME: Rome summoned the Libyan ambassador for talks after Italian coastguards apprehended 650 clandestine migrants on two boats near the island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily, amid mounting tension over illegal immigration.
A ship carrying 480 migrants was intercepted 30 nautical miles off the tiny island, the largest single boatload ever apprehended, overnight Saturday, and a second boat with 170 persons aboard was taken into custody soon afterwards, police said.
Investigators said the first ship, a 30-metre (100-foot) fishing vessel, had clearly sailed from Libya.
The migrants claimed to be Palestinians but investigators said most of them appeared to be Egyptian or from other north African countries.
A few of them were minors but there were no women.
The latest arrivals brought to more than 1,000 the number of clandestine immigrants intercepted off Lampedusa over the previous week.
The reception centre on the island, Italy’s southernmost outpost and a way-station for illegal immigration from Africa, has facilities for just 200 people.
In Rome, the foreign ministry said it had called the Libyan ambassador, Abdulati Ibrahim Alobidi, to a meeting Monday to discuss the “massive influx” of clandestine migrants.
Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has also ordered the Italian ambassador in Tripoli, Claudio Pacifico, to contact the Libyan authorities over the issue.
The envoy will “seek maximum collaboration in initiatives already agreed to combat clandestine immigration,” the ministry said.
A third vessel arrived at Syracuse, on Sicily’s southern coast, early Sunday carrying 130 people, including 30 women and seven children, who said they had come from Somalia and Eritrea.
Another vessel heading towards Lampedusa carrying hundreds more would-be immigrants was intercepted by Tunisian authorities, which prompted a message of thanks from Italian authorities.
Faced with the spate of arrivals, officials requisitioned places aboard a ferry to take some of the migrants to western Sicily, officials said.
Most of the migrants were airlifted in four planes, including two military planes, to an other reception centre in southern Sicily.
The development comes less than three weeks after Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi held a five-hour meeting with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi concentrating on an emerging plan to push back the frontline of illegal immigration.
Italy has been pushing Libya to accept its help in setting up reception centres to intercept African would-be immigrants to Europe.
Deputy Mario Borghezio of the Northern League, the right-wing, xenophobic party which forms part of Berlusconi’s right-of-centre coalition, described the latest arrivals as “a real invasion.”
Italy and Libya are due to start joint patrols along the Libyan coast on September 16, a police source said.
Libya claims that international sanctions imposed in the 1980s have prevented it from stopping clandestine immigration from countries across the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.
However some suspect that Gaddafi is using the immigrant problem to step up pressure to end sanctions, imposed because of Tripoli’s role in state-sponsored terrorism, including the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. The sanctions have been partly eased but some remain in place for so-called “dual-use” imports—items that can be used for military as well as civilian purposes.
Ten nations from southern Europe and North Africa are to meet in Algiers on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss migration issues, notably illegal immigration, Algerian officials said Sunday.