Italy accused France of harboring a hostile attitude toward the flood of Tunisians reaching Italian shores from North Africa, as French officials vowed Thursday to further tighten border controls against the illegal migrants.
What Premier Silvio Berlusconi's government had hoped would be a rush toward solidarity by fellow European Union nations, as Italy struggles to shelter and guard the more than 25,000 migrants who have sailed clandestinely to southern Italian islands, instead quickly degenerated into a nasty standoff between Paris and Rome.
"Up to now, there has been an attitude of hostility on the part of the French government," said Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni as he briefed the Chamber of Deputies about his country's migrant situation that has been growing more dramatic by the day.
For days, French authorities have been turning back Tunisians at Italy's border with France near the Cote d'Azur. The migrants escaped holding centers on the Italian mainland, after the illegal arrivals were transferred from Lampedusa, a tiny island off between Sicily and Tunisia where smugglers boats have been arriving nearly nightly for weeks.
Maroni said at least 25,800 illegal migrants, the large majority of them Tunisians, had arrived since January. "From now on, all those who arrive from Tunisa will be deported," vowed the minister, a top official of the anti-immigrant Northern League party in the government coalition.
Italy had wanted to deport those already here, many of whom want to go to France, but reversed course early in the week, and after Maroni and Berlusconi held talks in Tunis, announced it would issue them temporary resident permits that would allow them free circulation among visa-free Schengen nations.
But Maroni's French counterpart, Claude Gueant warned Thursday that France "doesn't intend to suffer the consequences of a wave of economic immigration from Tunisia."
"It's not enough to have Italian papers to come to France. Those who hold such papers also need identity papers and others showing they have the necessary (economic) resources. That's European law," he told RTL radio, referring to the Italian decision to issue short-term residency papers for 20,000 illegal immigrants already in the country. "If they don't have regular resources, we'll deport the holders of the temporary Italian papers."
Gueant also warned that controls at French border crossings were "already very tight" and could be "reinforced," if necessary.
Maroni said that if that's the case, than "France should get out of Schengen or suspend the treaty," the Italian news agency ANSA reported him saying during a taping for a late-night talk show on Italian state TV. The two men were scheduled to meet in Milan for talks Friday.
"I'll tell the French interior minister tomorrow (Friday) that the Tunisians to whom we'll give the temporary residence permit have the right to circulate" among Schengen countries, Maroni was quoted as saying.
In the latest drama, Italian vessels and helicopters searched the swath of sea between Sicily and northern Africa's coast for as 250 migrants missing in the capsizing of a storm-tossed smugglers' boat earlier this week in Maltese waters.The exact number of those aboard is unclear.
Some of the 53 survivors told rescuers there were 300 aboard, others put the number at about 250. Hope was practically gone that any more survivors would be found. Rescuers reported seeing numerous bodies, including of children, in the sea.
Most of the survivors came from Somalia or other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, but at least one man said he was from Bangladesh. Several told reporters on Lampedusa island, where the survivors were taken, that they had fled Libya because soldiers loyal to the Libyan regime were going house-to-house to round up Africans to fight rebels trying to oust strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
Among those gripped by the migrant drama, was Pope Benedict XVI, who was praying for all those "who lose their lives in the terrible journey to flee the poverty, injustice and violence afflicting them," Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said.
Survivors of the shipwreck told reporters on Lampedusa that many of them had lost their entire family, including infants. One woman said that out of 60 women who were among those setting out from Libya in the boat, "just two of us survived, myself, and a woman who is pregnant."
Alessandra Rizzo in Rome and Jenny Barchfield in Paris contributed to this report.
(This version corrects venue of Maroni-Gueant meeting to Milan.)