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Italian minister sets May 15 for start of Italy-Libya patrols

The problem of illegal immigrants reaching Malta from Libya could be resolved come May 15 if a declaration made by Italian Home Affairs Minister Roberto Maroni comes to fruition.

Reacting to another "invasion" of immigrants in Sicily, Mr Maroni said leaving Libya would become extremely hard come May 15, when the agreement on joint patrols by Italian and Libyan personnel of the Libyan 2,000-kilometre coastline enters into force.

"We should be able to completely stop the flow of illegal immigrants from Libya to Lampedusa and Sicily from May 15 when the joint patrols are scheduled to start. I expect that, from this day onwards, the Libyan immigration corridor will be closed," Mr Maroni insisted.

Over 400 illegal immigrants reached Portopalo and Pozzallo in Sicily yesterday on two 20-metre boats, which departed from Libya.

According to the daily newspaper Il Messaggero, a Somali citizen, considered to be the brains behind yesterday's illegal operation, was arrested and will be charged with human trafficking.

Mr Maroni said that, following talks with the Libyan government, six Italian patrol boats with Italian and Libyan personnel on board would start patrolling Libya's coasts from inside its territorial waters to ensure no illegal immigrants left the North African country.

"I am very confident Libya will keep its word and will help us stop illegal immigrants from reaching our coasts," Mr Maroni was reported saying.

Originally, the Italy-Libya patrols had to start earlier in the year but they were postponed due to "technical problems".

Malta is looking forward to seeing these operations come into effect and has even offered to participate through its Armed Forces.

Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici prefers to "wait and see" before commenting on the effects such patrols would have on Malta's immigration problem.

Almost all the illegal immigrants reaching Malta's shores depart from Libya with the intention of reaching Italy. Bad weather or technical problems during the crossing result in some of the boats ending up in Malta.

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