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Over 750 refugees land on Lampedusa, Italy suspects Gaddafi

Pregnant women, children among migrants from Libya

19 April, 17:16
Over 750 refugees land on Lampedusa, Italy suspects Gaddafi (see related story on Libya) (ANSA) - Rome, April 19 - Italy said besieged Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi may be to blame for the arrival on a fishing boat of some 760 African refugees on the tiny southern Italian island of Lampedusa on Tuesday.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told a House committee that he suspects Gaddafi may have decided to use people trafficking to hit back at international support for rebels trying to end his 40-year rule in Libya.

In the past Gaddafi has said Africans will move ''en masse'' to Europe and the Mediterranean will become a ''sea of chaos'' if he is toppled. Frattini said the boat came from the western port of Zuwarah and that the anti-Gaddafi Libyan National Council will provide Italy with evidence about whether ''the Gaddafi regime was starting to organise the trafficking of human beings, as it had threatened to do, from that port''.

The fishing boat made the hazardous crossing of the Channel of Sicily, where some 800 migrants are estimated to have been lost at sea this year. Its passengers included 17 children and 62 women, several of whom were pregnant.

The refugees are expected to be transferred later on Tuesday to the mainland from Lampedusa, the main stop-off point for many of the over 28,000 migrants to have landed on Italy's shores this year following unrest in North Africa.

The island was the scene of a humanitarian crisis for weeks, with thousands of mostly Tunisian migrants sleeping rough with food and water scarce, before the authorities emptied it of non-EU citizens by moving them to camps in other parts of Italy this month.

Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said last week that he was hopeful the worst of the migrant crisis was over thanks to an agreement with Tunisia to boost efforts to stem the flow and repatriate new arrivals in exchange for aid and assistance.

Maroni, however, said he is worried people traffickers will take advantage of the rebellion against Gaddafi's rule in Libya to bring over migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the continent.

The migrant crisis has caused diplomatic friction between Italy and France.

Italy has angered France by giving temporary resident permits to thousands of Tunisian migrants to enable them to travel freely in many European countries.

This move came after France had stopped migrants without visas at its border with Italy, prompting Maroni to accuse the French government of adopting a hostile attitude for refusing to share the burden of the migrants. France blocked the passage of trains from Italy for seven hours on Sunday to stop North African migrants from entering the country.

The tension has subsided since, with France allowing in Tunisians as long as they have visas, valid ID and a small amount of money.

The Italian government has expressed confidence everything will be smoothed over at next week's summit in Rome between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi.