TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia has deployed soldiers to stop a tide of illegal immigrants trying to reach Italy, a military source said on Monday, after Rome said a revolution in the north African country had set off a "biblical exodus."
More than 4,000 migrants have crossed the sea from Tunisia to the small Italian island of Lampedusa in the past week, underscoring the lingering instability in Tunisia since protests ousted its president exactly a month ago.
Some analysts believe revolts in Tunisia and Egypt could spread to other countries in the region, creating a potential nightmare scenario for European governments which have relied on autocratic leaders in north Africa to help curb migration.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, was planning to discuss the problem of illegal migrants on a visit to the Tunisia capital, a spokeswoman said, and Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini was scheduled to arrive later.
Tunisia's caretaker government earlier accused Rome of infringing on its sovereignty after an Italian minister suggested sending police to Tunisia to stem the tide of illegal migrants arriving on Lampedusa in overcrowded boats.
"The military are controlling the coasts at Gabes and at Zarzis to stop the illegal migrants," the military source, who did not want to be named, told Reuters. "The military along with the coastguards are also present at the port of Gabes."
The shores around the Gulf of Gabes are a traditional launching point for illegal migrants because, though they are not the shortest distance to Lampedusa, they are thinly populated and there is little security.
Migrants were paying people smugglers $1,800 to make the crossing from Zarzis, the International Organization for Migration said.
Tunisian protesters unseated authoritarian ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, in an uprising that served as an inspiration for the revolt in Egypt which on Friday forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign.
Since Ben Ali's departure Tunisia's interim government has been making faltering steps toward stability. But police have melted away in many places, and strikes and protests around the country are disrupting the economy.
"I will ask the Tunisian foreign minister for authorization so an Italian contingent can intervene to block the influx. The Tunisian system is collapsing," Maroni said on Italian television.
The Tunisian foreign ministry said in a statement reported by the official media that it was surprised by Maroni's comments and that it "categorically rejects any interference in its internal affairs or any infringement of its sovereignty."
Most of the Tunisians have arrived in rickety and overcrowded boats and about 1,400 landed on Sunday alone.
Italy's national security commission was due to meet later on Monday to discuss the issue.
"We are all afraid after the revolution that has taken place because nothing has improved until now," a 31-year-old Tunisian migrant in Lampedusa told Italian television.
"Since January 14 nothing has changed. All of us here, we are not asking for anything, we only ask for a possibility to find work in Europe.