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Tunisians vote with their feet, flee the country

A month after massive protests ousted Tunisia's longtime dictator, waves of Tunisians are voting with their feet, fleeing the country's political limbo by climbing into rickety boats and sailing across the Mediterranean to Europe.

More than 5,000 illegal immigrants have recently washed up on Italy's southern islands — an unintended consequence of the "people's revolution" that ousted autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and inspired the uprisings in Egypt and beyond.

European powers cheered when Tunisia's 74-year-old ruler fled into exile in Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, but the fallout a month later has tempered their enthusiasm. It has also exposed a dilemma for western countries that allied with repressive leaders in North Africa seen as bulwarks against extremism, and now must build new diplomatic relationships in a still-uncertain political climate.

On Monday, the European Union announced a €258 million ($347 million) aid package to Tunisia from now until 2013, with €17 million ($22.9 million) of that to be delivered immediately. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, visiting Tunisia, said the funds were a gift, not a loan.

Meanwhile, Tunisia sternly rejected Italy's offer to send police there to help tackle waves of illegal migrants fleeing political upheaval, most landing on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa — an arid one-town island of 6,000 people.

Lampedusa's Mayor Bernardino Rubeis told AP Television News that the island's detention center for migrants had to leave its doors open since there were not enough police to guard it.

Rubeis said the migrants were milling about, some buying food in shops and not causing any problems.

"I want to change my life," said one Tunisian who wore a T-shirt from Italy's AS Roma football team and who declined to give his name, citing his difficult situation. "We came here because now it's not safe and there are no jobs in Tunisia."

Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni — who has called the migration a "biblical exodus" — offered police "contingents, which can patrol the coasts" as well as boats and other equipment and urged the 27-nation European Union to hold a special meeting on immigration strategy.

But Tunisia's Foreign Ministry categorically rejected the offer, expressing "astonishment" about it and saying it would fight any foreign "interference in its domestic affairs or any attack on its sovereignty."

Italy's offer, meanwhile, drew criticism from Germany.

"We should help, we should get involved, but certainly not awaken an impression that Tunisia can't resolve its own affairs," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. "That can only be misunderstood in Tunisia itself after such a proud, great revolution."

The stakes couldn't be higher for the North African nation of 11 million: Not only is it attempting to create a multiparty democratic system from scratch after more than half a century of strongman rule, but it's being scrutinized as a bellwether for Arab giant Egypt, where a popular revolt deposed authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak last week.

Under Tunisia's longtime dictator, trying to emigrate to Europe was a crime punishable by fines and prison time. The law is still on the books, but would-be immigrants are taking advantage of the power vacuum to brave choppy Mediterranean waters to reach Lampedusa, 75 miles (125 kilometers) away.

Many migrants have been flown to Sicily or the Italian mainland for document checks, and those ineligible for asylum risk deportation. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini was in Tunis to discuss the exodus.

In the last five days, 5,278 migrants have arrived by boat on Italian shores, almost all Tunisian or claiming to be Tunisian, the Italian interior minister told reporters in Rome.

There was no firm estimate about how many people might potentially flee from Tunisia, Egypt or elsewhere in the region. But it could be "tens of thousands ready to depart," Maroni said.

"In five days, we have 5,200. If we go on like this we'll surpass 80,000" in a year.

Italy has arrested 26 people who operated the boats and seized 41 vessels. Identity checks have found some of the arrivals were criminals who escaped from Tunisian jails in the chaos, the minister said, without saying how many.

Tunisia was gripped by chaos in the days that followed Ben Ali's flight, but daily life has largely returned to normal. Stores, markets, gas stations and schools have reopened, and people have returned to work. The marauding gangs of suspected regime loyalists who pillaged homes and businesses have largely melted away.

But plenty of problems remain. Elections that are supposed to take place in about five months have still not been scheduled, and the caretaker government has been hit by waves of resignations. The unpopular foreign minister tendered his resignation on Sunday, just weeks after his predecessor was fired in a purge of ministers with roots in Ben Ali's feared RCD party.

Since securing its independence from colonial protector France in 1956, Tunisia has steered a secular, pro-Western course and has been a key ally in the U.S. fight against terrorism, as well as a popular tourist destination for Europeans.

There are questions on whether the banned Ennahdha, or Renaissance party — branded an Islamic terrorist group by Ben Ali but considered moderate by scholars — could become a major political force. Thousands flooded the Tunis airport to lavish a hero's welcome on the party's exiled leader, Rachid Ghanouchi, as he returned last month after spending nearly two decades in London.

Tunisia is also planning an international conference seeking economic and political support for the changes ahead. Regional Development Minister Nejib Chebbi has said damage during the unrest has cost Tunisia some €2.5 billion ($3.4 billion).

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Ben Bouazza reported from Tunis. Jenny Barchfield in Paris, Alessandra Rizzo and Frances D'Emilio in Rome and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.