September 21, 2011 / 2:23 PM / 8 years ago

UPDATE 2-Migrants clash with residents on Italian island

* Flow of migrants stokes tensions

* North Africans flee unrest in Libya, Tunisia

* Mayor says government expoits the island (Releads with Interior Ministry statement)

PALERMO, Italy, Sept 21 (Reuters) - Italian authorities pledged on Wednesday to clear a small southern island of immigrants after hundreds of north Africans clashed with residents and police for a second day.

Lampedusa, roughly midway between Sicily and the African mainland, has been the point of arrival in Europe for hundreds of small, often overcrowded boats arriving almost daily from Tunisia and Libya.

Trouble erupted on Tuesday when some migrants set fire to a holding centre on the island in protest over fears of plans for forced repatriation and clashes between some residents and migrants broke out again on Wednesday.

Interior Ministry undersecretary Sonia Viale condemned the violence and said repatriation plans would go ahead after bitter complaints about government inaction from local officials.

“Within the next 48 hours, all the illegal immigrants present in Lampedusa will be transferred from the island and then repatriated,” she said in a statement.

In normal times, Lampedusa is a sleepy place, living off fishing and tourism, but it has been transformed by the immigrant crisis which has placed it under increasing strain.

At times, the island’s 5,000-strong population has been outnumbered by the immigrants, most of them young men in search of work in Europe.

“The situation is tragic. We’re tired of being exploited by this government,” mayor Bernardo De Rubeis told SkyTG24 television, adding that the island had taken in more than 55,000 migrants since the beginning of the year.

“We’re facing 1,500 delinquents who burned down the reception centre, who have endangered the lives of our citizens and the police,” he said.

“We’re asking (Interior Minister Roberto) Maroni to empty the island at once and we will not accept a single extra migrant.”

EXPLOSIVE SITUATION

Italy wants to restore migration agreements which existed before the “Arab Spring” upheavals swept the former regime in Tunisia from power and has encouraged voluntary repatriation schemes under which migrants are helped to return home.

Migrants arriving in Lampedusa are held in reception centres before being transferred to the mainland where many try to make their way to other European countries, notably France. Some have also been sent back forcibly.

The opposition Democratic Party accused the centre-right government and Maroni of letting the tension get out of hand.

“The situation has become explosive because the government has not been living up to its responsibilities,” Livia Turco, head of the party’s immigration policy group, said.

In addition to the assistance provided by official emergency services, residents have for months offered food and even shelter to the thousands of migrants camped around the island in the hope of being taken to the mainland.

But the ceaseless flow of arrivals and fears among migrants of forcible repatriation has raised the temperature.

On Tuesday, some 1,200 migrants were relocated to a sports field after the reception centre was burned down. Clashes with residents broke out after some residents threw stones and some of the immigrants retaliated, local officials said.

Italian news agency ANSA reported that journalists on the island were threatened by some residents on Wednesday. There have been similar reports from humanitarian groups which have representatives monitoring the situation on the ground.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi ordered thousands of migrants to be shipped to the mainland in a bid to clear the island but the boats have continued to arrive.

Italy has accused former Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi of sending thousands of desperate people to attempt the crossing, in which more than 1,500 have died, according to estimates from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. (Reporting by Wladimiro Pantaleone; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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