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Tunisia 'ready to find solution' to immigrants flood

Around 5,000 asylum-seekers have landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa in the past week, most of them fleeing Tunisia after the president was toppled.

Tunisia said it was ready to work with foreign governments to stem a wave of immigrants heading across the Mediterranean as it hosted talks with the chief diplomats of the European Union and Italy.

Around 5,000 asylum-seekers have landed on the remote Italian island of Lampedusa in the past week, most of them fleeing Tunisia after the president was toppled a month ago, leading Rome to declare a humanitarian emergency.

The Italian interior minister triggered a diplomatic row at the weekend by calling for Italian police to be sent to north Africa to tackle the problem.

The Tunis government called his comments "unacceptable" but said it was to be expected from a minister with a fascist background, a reference to his membership of the anti-immigration Northern League party.

However, Tunisia's foreign ministry said on Monday that Tunisia was willing to "cooperate with fraternal countries in order to identify solutions to this phenomenon", albeit insisting it would not tolerate "interference in its internal affairs."

"Tunisia hopes to examine this question in full transparency with Italian officials during meetings in the days to come," a ministry official told the official TAP news agency.

The more emollient tone came as the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, arrived and Italy's foreign minister, Franco Frattini, headed to Tunis.

Speaking before his arrival, Mr Frattini said that Italy could offer "logistics help in terms of police equipment and substantial resources, both terrestrial and naval, for the control of the Tunisian coast.

"Until now the system of patrolling the coasts of Northern Africa has worked and we want to re-establish the technique, which had reduced illegal immigration to zero until a month ago," he said.

Mr Frattini is to meet the Tunisian prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, as part of a tour of the Arab world which will also take him to Syria and Jordan.

The immigrant exodus is also expected to feature in Lady Ashton's meetings although her visit was meant to focus on democratic reforms after the Tunisian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was toppled on January 14.

While immigration from Tunisia to Italy is not a new phenomenon, there has been a dramatic acceleration in the month since Mr Ben Ali fled a popular uprising, ending 23 years in power.

Nearly all the immigrants have headed for Lampedusa, which at just 110 kilometres from Tunisian shores, is closer to Africa than Italy. The migrants are overwhelming the island, which usually has just 6,000 residents.

Italy has begun airlifting and shipping many of the immigrants to detention centres in Sicily and on mainland Italy, but police estimate that more than 2,000 of them remain on the island.

With the post-Ben Ali government struggling to impose its authority, the Italian interior minister, Roberto Maroni, declared on Sunday that "the Tunisian system is collapsing" and said he wanted "our forces to intervene".

He returned to his theme on Monday but stressed that Italy wanted to help.

"There is no longer a system of security in Tunisia and we are ready to lend a hand, to supply the means, patrol boats, off-road vehicles," Mr Maroni said.

Officials in Brussels meanwhile denied reports from Italy suggesting that the EU was responding slowly to calls for aid in the crisis, saying instead that Rome had refused offers of assistance.

The EU hme affairs commissioner, Cecilia Malmstroem, said that Italian authorities had been asked over the weekend if they needed help.

"Their reply was clear, 'We don't need the European commission's assistance at this stage,'" she said.

Ms Malmstroem said she had asked Frontex, the EU border management agency, to assess how the commission could assist Italy.

"The European commission is fully aware of the exceptional pressure on Italy and stands ready to show concrete European solidarity," she said.

A French minister meanwhile warned would-be Tunisian migrants to stay at home.

"There can be no tolerance for illegal immigration," the country's industry minister, Eric Besson ,said, adding that some individuals might have the right to claim asylum in France, including supporters of the ousted president.

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