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Tunisia Ready to Cooperate on Immigration

VOA News February 14, 2011

Tunisian troops are patrolling fishing ports in an effort to halt the flow of illegal immigrants to Europe, after rejecting an Italian request to deploy police to the North African country where a popular uprising ousted the president and set off a mass exodus.

In a statement Monday, Tunisia's Foreign Ministry said it respects human rights and is ready to work toward addressing the crisis, but will not allow any interference in its internal affairs.

The Italian government made the request after more than 4,000 Tunisians landed on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa in the past few days. But Tunisia's Foreign Ministry categorically rejected it, saying his country will not allow any infringement on its sovereignty.

The statement came as European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced she expects a new trade deal with Tunisia within months, granting the North African country "advanced status" for improved trade and cooperation. Speaking after talks with officials in Tunis, she also announced nearly $350 million in aid from the EU by 2013.

The immigrants are seeking to flee social and political unrest after last month's collapse of the Tunisian government.

Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni has called the exodus of Tunisians for Europe a political earthquake that could have a devastating impact.

Italy has declared a humanitarian emergency on the island, and is appealing to the European Union for help. Maroni complained to Italian television Sunday that Italy has been left alone to deal with the crisis.

Italy reopened a defunct detention center on Lampedusa, and has flown a number of Tunisian migrants to Sicily or put them on ferries for other Italian ports.

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