* Thousands of migrants landing on Italian island
* Anger over Italian offer to send police to Tunisia
* EU foreign policy chief says trade deal to be agreed soon
* Italy’s Berlusconi says migrants issue is “critical”
(Updates with quotes from Italian minister)
By Tarek Amara
TUNIS, Feb 14 (Reuters) - 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 Jan. 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.
Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni Maroni told a news conference Rome would seek 100 million euros ($135 million) from the European Commission to help with the costs of the crisis and that Italy would send some 200 more soldiers to Sicily.
“This is a political and social crisis that can have unforeseeable consequences,” said Moroni, who had earlier said the turmoil in Tunisia had set off a “biblical exodus.”
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini was scheduled to arrive in Tunis for talks on Monday evening.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi discussed the crisis with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, telling him that Italy believed the issue was a “critical” one that affected the whole of the European Union, Berlusconi’s office said.
Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, met Tunisia’s interim prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, and afterwards said the bloc planned to finish negotiations within months on granting Tunisia “advanced status” — which will mean preferential trade terms.
She also said the EU planned to give Tunisia 258 million euros in aid by 2013, and would send election observers to help monitor the presidential election.
“We would like to be Tunisia’s main ally in moving towards democracy,” she told a news conference. “We want to assist in the opening up and the democratic transition of the country.”
Asked about the migrants, Ashton said the EU was working with Tunisian and Italian officials. “The most important thing is that everything is done by the rule book, for the safety of the young people and of Italy,” she said.
In Lampedusa, local officials say migrants are overwhelming the island, which lies closer to Africa than mainland Italy. About 1,400 people landed from Tunisia on Sunday alone.
“We are all afraid after the revolution that has taken place because nothing has improved until now,” an unnamed 31-year-old Tunisian migrant in Lampedusa told Italian television.
“All of us here, we are not asking for anything. We only ask for a possibility to find work in Europe. (Additional reporting by Philip Pullella, Deepa Babington, Roberto Landucci and Antonio Denti in Rome, and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)