* Berlusconi pledges to clear island within 60 hours
* Operation to shift migrants from island stepped up
* Italy seeks EU help, criticises France
* Much smaller number of migrants arriving from Libya
By Leon Malherbe
LAMPEDUSA, Italy, March 30 (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi promised to clear thousands of illegal Tunisian migrants from Lampedusa by the weekend after an outcry over a humanitarian crisis on the tiny southern island.
Berlusconi, who visited Lampedusa on Wednesday, said the work of moving around 6,000 migrants living in makeshift tent encampments to other centres in Italy had already begun on six ships with a combined capacity for 10,000 passengers.
A quiet tourist and fishing port, Lampedusa, about 225 km from Tunisia’s coast, has been transformed into a garbage-strewn encampment where hundreds of migrants from Tunisia have disembarked from overloaded fishing boats virtually every day.
“From this moment on, within 48-60 hours, Lampedusa will be inhabited solely by Lampedusans,” Berlusconi told a meeting of the island’s residents, who have seen 19,000 Tunisians arrive since popular unrest toppled their president in January.
As migrants have been moved on from Lampedusa, problems have sprung up at camps elsewhere in Italy and the government has struggled to come up with a longer-term response.
Berlusconi’s coalition allies in the Northern League have demanded that migrants be sent back to Tunisia immediately but the premier himself took a somewhat more cautious line.
“We will be able to take some of them back where they left from. It won’t be easy but it would be a strong signal that it’s not worth taking the risk and then being sent back home.”
A much smaller number of migrants, mainly Eritreans, have arrived from Libya, to Tunisia’s east, where Muammar Gaddafi’s forces have been battling rebels for six weeks and coming under Western air strikes meant to protect civilians in the conflict.
Having faced bitter criticism for failing to act as the crisis has built up since the start of the year, Berlusconi made a series of promises ranging from helping to build a golf course on Lampedusa to proposing the island for the Nobel Peace Prize.
He said that state broadcaster RAI and Mediaset, Italy’s biggest private broadcaster which he owns himself, would be encouraged to show programmes on the beauties of Lampedusa to promote tourism on the island, whose native population is 5,000.
“The whole island will be restored to its normal condition.”
Berlusconi, one of Italy’s richest men, said he had bought a house on the island himself, adding: “I will become Lampedusan.”
The flurry of pledges contrasted sharply with the weeks of uncertainty that preceded Berlusconi’s visit.
Tunisian migrants have flowed in since the fall of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January loosened previously strict frontier controls and opened the way into Europe for thousands seeking employment.
Berlusconi, entangled in a series of corruption trials and facing charges next week of paying for sex with a minor, was prompted to act after tension rose sharply on the island and residents mounted angry protests.
The festering crisis over garbage disposal in Naples has already scarred the government’s image. The crisis in Lampedusa has created another highly visible target for the opposition.
“Berlusconi on Lampedusa is less convincing than a peddlar of stolen pots and pans,” said Felice Belisario, Senate leader of the Italy of Values party, dismissing the prime minister’s pledges as “squalid propaganda”.
Italy has also chided European partners for alleged inaction, above all France, which has clamped down on migrants entering from the northern Italian town of Ventimiglia, with police sending any they find back across the border. “Europe has been absolutely inactive on this,” Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told SkyTG24 television.
“Try talking to the French who are setting up a wall at Ventimiglia, when it is well known that 80 percent of those arriving in Lampedusa speak French and maybe have relatives in French cities,” he said. (Writing by James Mackenzie; editing by Mark Heinrich)