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Tunis - Tunisia has deployed soldiers to stop a tide of illegal immigrants trying to reach Italy, a military source said on Monday, after Rome said a revolution in the North African country had set off a “biblical exodus”.
More than 4 000 migrants have crossed the sea from Tunisia to the small Italian island of Lampedusa in the past week, underscoring the lingering instability in Tunisia since protests ousted its president a month ago to the day on Monday.
Some analysts believe revolts in Tunisia and Egypt could spread to other countries in the region, creating a potential nightmare scenario for European governments which have relied on autocratic leaders in North Africa to help curb migration.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said on a visit to Tunis that she expected a trade deal with the bloc to be agreed within months, giving a boost to a Tunisian economy that has been battered by the turmoil of the past weeks.
The flow of illegal migrants sparked a diplomatic row, with Tunisia accusing Rome of infringing on its sovereignty after an Italian minister suggested sending police to Tunisia to stem the flow of people arriving on Lampedusa.
“The military are controlling the coasts at Gabes and at Zarzis to stop the illegal migrants,” the Tunisian military source said on condition of anonymity. “The military, along with the coastguards, are also present at the port of Gabes.”
The Gulf of Gabes is a favoured launching point for the trip to Lampedusa - often made in overcrowded boats. Migrants were paying people smugglers $1 800 to cross from Zarzis, the International Organisation for Migration said.
Tunisian protesters unseated authoritarian ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, in an uprising that served as an inspiration for the revolt in Egypt which on Friday forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign.
Since Ben Ali's departure Tunisia's interim government has been making faltering steps towards stability. But police have melted away in many places, and strikes and protests around the country are disrupting the economy. - Reuters