MILAN – Seeking to defuse a tense border crisis, Italy and France have agreed to joint sea-and-air patrols to try to block new Tunisian migrants from sailing to European shores.
The deal was announced Friday by Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni after meeting with his French counterpart in Milan.
Rome and Paris have been sparring fiercely over what to do about the more than 20,000 Tunisians who sailed across the Mediterranean to Italy in recent weeks after political upheaval in their North African homeland. But some concessions seemed to emerge after the meeting between Maroni and French Interior Minister Claude Gueant.
"We have agreed on developing common action," Maroni told reporters, adding that both sides would "take initiatives to block the departure of clandestine migrants from Tunisia" with joint sea-and-air patrols.
Only a day earlier, Maroni accused France of harboring a hostile attitude toward the migrants from Tunisia, a former French colony. Paris, in turn, had vowed to tighten its own border controls in possible violation of EU-wide border rules so that migrants couldn't cross into French territory from northwest Italy.
The two European neighbors also agreed Friday to work out a system under which migrants receiving temporary residency permits from Italian authorities would head back to Tunisia during the permit period on what Maroni called a "voluntary" basis. It was not immediately clear how that would work.
Gueant promised that France would follow the Schengen free-circulation rules for those holding valid documents from member states — border rules followed by many European countries — but he insisted that the Tunisian migrants must have "economic resources."
That appeared to be a concession, for France in recent days has blocked the entry of hundreds of Tunisians who have been trying to cross into France from northwest Italy.
Neither man took questions and details were not immediately available.
Italian officials had criticized other European Union nations for not helping it cope with a flood of migrants in the last few months from the turmoil in North Africa. Maroni tried to ease local tensions Friday by saying the matter is "not a French-Italian question but one that must be settled on a European level."
After Tunisian migrants on rickety boats overwhelmed the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, Italy transferred thousands of them to mainland camps. Hundreds of the migrants, however, ran away from the Italian camps and headed straight to the French border, hoping to live with relatives already in France.
The seaborne exodus started after Tunisia's longtime authoritarian leader was overthrown in mid-January.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi's government has appealed for more solidarity by fellow EU nations on accepting the migrants and helping Italy cope with the deluge.