Tunisia faces migrant exodus

As Tunisia marks on Monday a month since the ousting of president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the interim government battled European pressure to curb an exodus of migrants and a key minister quit.

Ahmed Ounaies resigned on Sunday in a blow to the new authority a day before a visit by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to focus on democratic reforms since the removal of the strongman leader in a popular uprising.

The interim government meanwhile rushed security forces to coastal areas to stop a Europe-bound exodus of people fleeing poverty, a government source said, with thousands of immigrants flooding to Italy in recent days.

Maritime security “have arrested many people trying to cross the borders. Reinforcements have been sent”, said the official on grounds of anonymity, refusing to disclose further details.

Immigration will likely be a top issue in talks Monday between Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and Ashton, after Italy appealed for urgent EU aid to halt a wave of North African immigrants.

About 5 000 undocumented migrants, many of them Tunisians, have arrived to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa over the last five days alone.

Tunisian authorities have also arrested between 1 000 and 1 500 would-be immigrants in recent days, the Effadeh daily reported, citing security sources.

Fleeing poverty
The immigrants said they were fleeing poverty and continued unrest in the North African state following the uprising that ousted Ben Ali on January 14 after 23 years in power.

“The Tunisian system is collapsing,” Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, of the anti-immigration Northern League party, said in a television interview.

But Tunisian officials slammed a suggestion by Rome that Italian police could be sent to the country to stem the flow of illegals.

“It is unacceptable,” government spokesperson Taieb Baccouche told Al-Arabiya television when asked to react to a statement by Maroni that he would ask Tunisia “for authorisation for our forces to intervene in Tunisia to block the flux”.

“The Tunisian people reject the deployment of foreign soldiers on our territory,” Baccouche said, adding that the control of the country’s coast “is up to the Tunisian authorities.”

While deploring Maroni’s comments, he also labelled them unsurprising, saying they came from a minister belonging to “the extreme fascist right wing”.

Ounaies’ resignation was another blow to the interim government.

The 75-year-old retired diplomat, who joined its reshuffled forces less than three weeks ago, had hailed his French counterpart Michele Alliot-Marie as “above all a friend of Tunisia” during a visit to Paris this month.

His remarks came as Alliot-Marie faced calls to resign after admitting that she used a private plane owned by a Tunisian businessman with alleged ties to the Ben Ali regime.

Three days after the Paris visit, Ounaies was heckled by staff at the foreign ministry who demonstrated for his immediate departure. In response, he took his personal belongings and left.

More broadly pockets of Tunisia’s old guard were still strong and interim authorities often appeared overwhelmed by the task of turning a new political page.

Many Tunisians say they fear promised changes may be put aside, but they also say they live in a country transformed, where old fears have been swept aside.

In a tangible homage to January’s revolt, a cortege of buses filled with food, blankets and medical supplies arrived Sunday in the central town of Kasserine, a focal point of the uprising, to express thanks and solidarity.

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