Italy ferries Tunisians off Sicilian island

Italy ferried hundreds of Tunisians off a tiny Sicilian island Saturday to detention centers amid government fears that terrorists could mix in among the boatloads of people fleeing turmoil in North Africa.

But the exodus to Italian shores aboard rickety fishing vessels continued without letup.

By dawn, around 3,000 migrants had arrived by boat on Lampedusa over three days, hundreds more arrived during the day and several more boats were reportedly spotted on the horizon headed for the flat-rock, largely barren fishing island, Italian authorities said.

Coast guard officials on the 8-square-mile (20-square-kilometer) island were bracing for more boatloads of North Africans in the days ahead, especially since seas were calm.

Italian coast guard vessels and aircraft monitored the seas to try to spot smugglers' boats heading toward Lampedusa, an island closer to North African than to mainland Italy.

One migrant died and another was missing after a vessel loaded with 12 people sunk near Zaris in Tunisian waters, Tunisia's official news agency TAP reported.

Official Tunisian sources said the boat was headed toward European coasts, without citing a country. Italian coast guard officials said they had no information about the reported sinking, since it happened in Tunisian waters.

An urgent meeting of the Italian Cabinet declared a "state of humanitarian emergency" following the exodus of Tunisians to Italian shores that began earlier in the week in the wake of protests and unrest in their homeland.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi's office said in a statement the emergency status would allow the Civil Protection agency to help carry out "the necessary measures to control the phenomenon and help citizens fleeing from North African countries." It didn't describe the measures.

Hundreds of North Africans, most of them Tunisian men, arrived on Lampedusa island Saturday, many of them jammed aboard aging fishing boats or motorized dinghies.

Italy started using ferries and planes to transport them to detention centers in Sicily and elsewhere in southern Italy so that their documents can be checked. Unless they have jobs awaiting or can make a case for asylum, they face deportation.

On Friday, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni told reporters there were fears that terrorists and al-Qaida supporters along with common criminals who fled Tunisian prisons in the confusion of popular protests there could mix in with Tunisians in the confusions of the boat exodus.

With the unrest discouraging tourism, a major Tunisian industry, economic worries could tempt Tunisians to risk crossing the Mediterranean in smugglers' boats in hopes of slipping undetected on to Italian shores.