March 1, 2011 / 9:32 PM / in 7 years

Italy plans aid mission for Libyan refugees

* Rome plans aid for 10,000 refugees fleeing Libya

* Berlusconi govt says refugee situation “critical”

ROME, March 1 (Reuters) - Italy will dispatch a humanitarian mission to Tunisia to provide food and medical aid to as many as 10,000 people who have fled violence in neighbouring Libya, the Italian government said on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government said the situation facing Libyan refugees was “truly critical” and that aid would also help prevent a wave of African migrants leaving for Italian shores, a government spokesman said.

“This is an emergency mission of a humanitarian kind, which gives relief and keeps the refugees in Tunisian territory, with the agreement of Tunisian authorities,” Interior Minister Roberto Maroni told Italian television after Berlusconi met his ministers late on Tuesday to discuss the Libyan crisis.

“I hope this is followed by the intervention of other European countries.”

Maroni said the mission would leave Italy within 48 hours.

Tens of thousands have fled Libya since an uprising against Muammar Gaddafi prompted a violent crackdown by his security forces, creating chaos in some areas.

Tunisian border guards fired into the air on Tuesday to try to control a crowd of people trying to get through the Ras Jdir border crossing, a Reuters reporter said. [ID:nLDE7201KC]

Berlusconi’s government, which has made cracking down on illegal immigration a priority, has been alarmed by the prospect of a new wave of immigrants arriving by boat to Italy due to the unrest in North Africa.

About 6,000 Tunisians arrived last month on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, which is closer to Africa than mainland Italy, after protesters ousted Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Reporting by Deepa Babington; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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