Tunisia foreign min visits Lampedusa after boat disaster

TUNIS - Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem flew to Italy's Lampedusa island on Thursday, near where dozens of Tunisian migrants died last week when their boat sank, and discussed illegal migration with his Italian counterpart.

"The main subject discussed with the Italian minister (Giulio Terzi) was about our young people missing at sea, and we emphasised the need to continue searching for them," Abdessalem told Tunisian radio station Mosaique FM.

Lampedusa, the closest island to the coast of north Africa and a favoured destination for African migrants heading to Europe illegally, is near where the fatal accident took place on Friday that claimed the lives of more than 50 Tunisians.

"The subject of illegal immigration was also on the agenda of our talks... and we made it very clear that we are not happy to see our young trying to reach the other side of the Mediterranean," he added. Abdessalem was also to meet Italian Interior Minister Annamaria Cancellieri during his two-day trip, Tunisia's TAP news agency said earlier, to discuss the clandestine activity that claims hundreds of lives each year in the waters between the two countries.

On Thursday, President Moncef Marzouki and Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali discussed the subject and ways of "fighting this phenomenon" which has led to "numerous human tragedies," the presidency said. Abdessalem's visit comes amid sharp criticism of the Islamist-led Tunisian government after an ageing 10-metre (33-foot) fishing vessel loaded with

around 110 migrants sank 12 nautical miles off Lampedusa, with only 56 people rescued.

The survivors, apparently all Tunisians, were taken to a reception centre on the island. The ruling coalition took two days to react to the disaster, which the opposition described as a "failure of government policy." Tunisian Interior Minister Ali Larayedh defended the government, telling satellite TV channel France 24 on Thursday that the country's army and national guard saved the lives of illegal migrants "every day."

"Smuggling people by boat is a very old activity, and thousands of people have lost their lives in this way. (But) every day we save lives thanks to the national guard, which has arrested hundreds of traffickers," he added. Relatives of the victims gathered in Habib Bourguiba Avenue in central Tunis on Thursday, some carrying pictures of lost family members, to demand the swift repatriation of their remains.

The president of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, Abderrahmane Hedhili, told Mosaique FM earlier that an estimated 40,000 Tunisians had emigrated illegally since last year's revolution. He said another 2,080 had disappeared.

Each year, thousands of illegal migrants attempt to cross the Mediterranean in often overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels in a bid to reach the European Union.