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Berlusconi promises to empty and re-launch Lampedusa

Five ships come amid food shortage and angry islanders

30 March, 16:29
Berlusconi promises to empty and re-launch Lampedusa (ANSA) - Milan, March 30 - Premier Silvio Berlusconi flew to Lampedusa Wednesday to appease angry residents, promising measures to rehabilitate the island and to prevent further immigrant landings.

The tiny island community has been overwhelmed in recent days by frequent immigrant boat landings - mainly from Tunisia - that has crammed more than 6,000 immigrants on its shores, causing dense overcrowding, severe food shortage among new arrivals, high tension, and local protests.

"In 48 to 60 hours, Lampedusa will be inhabited only by Lampedusans," declared Berlusconi amidst the applause of islanders. Two of five ships sent to empty Lampedusa of its human tide arrived Wednesday morning. Another three were expected later in the day, offering a total capacity of 10,000 persons.

Berlusconi also promised to prevent new landings.

"We have obtained (permission) to monitor the ports and the coasts to prevent new landings. "We have even implemented entrepreneurial measures. "I will tell you a colorful one: we have bought fishing boats so that they cannot be used for (immigrant) crossings. "We have obtained commitment for the acceptance of all the Tunisians that we manage to bring back".

On Monday, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni threatened forced repatriations should diplomatic efforts with Tunisian authorities fail. Tuesday the leader of the right wing Northern League Umberto Bossi used a vulgar phrase in Lombard dialect meaning, approximately, "Throw them out". The European Union's commissioner of internal affairs, Cecilia Malmstrom, responded, "People who need protection and ask for asylum cannot be pushed back".

Berlusconi in his speech to Lampedusans also promised recompense to them for their ordeal, giving tax breaks and exemption from mandatory pension payments. He pledged to appeal to the European Union to turn the island into a special "bureaucracy-free" zone. In addition, he said the government was seeking discounted diesel fuel for Lampedusan fishermen from the state-controlled petroleum giant ENI. Berlusconi also said he would take action for Lampedusa's image among tourists.

"We have already commissioned RAI and Mediaset to do reports to attract Italians to Lampedusa, which has always been a paradise and will return to be so," he said. Mediaset and RAI are Italy's two main television networks.

Mediaset is majority-owned by the premier while RAI is state-owned.

Berlusconi also said he had personally bought a house on the island. "I went on the Internet and I bought a house at Cala Francese. It is called Le Due Palme. I, too, will become a Lampedusan".

The villa was up for sale on the Web for 150 million euros.

Berlusconi even said the government would nominate Lampusa for the Nobel peace prize.

His speech came after reports of a 2,000-meal shortfall among the over 6,000 immigrants packed in and around an immigrant center built as a temporary first stop with a maximum capacity of 850. Despite tent cities hastily erected to give temporary shelter to the flood in recent days of mostly Tunisians, the UNHCR reported last week that many remained exposed to the elements.

Lampedusa residents grew increasingly hostile. A group of residents occupied the town hall after others had blocked military access road to the port Monday, overturning dumpsters and filling containers with water, stones and other debris. Several fishermen also sought to obstruct authorities, towing a string of boats confiscated from immigrants in an attempt to block the water entrance to the port.

Four commercial passenger ships and the military ship San Marco - with a total capacity for roughly 10,000 people - have been organized by the Italian government to empty the island, and transport the immigrants to temporary detention centers throughout Italy. Regular detention centers have reached near saturation, Italian authorities said last week.

A ship will be permanently stationed in Lampedusa to regularly evacuate it throughout the coming months, announced Cabinet Undersecretary Gianfranco Micciche', who noted that favorable weather in the spring and summer encourages immigrant sea crossings.