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Libya’s Secret Weapon? Unleashing Mass Immigration

The tiny Italian island of Lampedusa is on Europe's front line after Western strikes against Libya begin. Gaddafi could set off a massive migrant influx from his coastline toward Lampedusa, or try to fire missiles at the island like he did in 1986.

Remains of immigrant boat on Lampedusa (pv canale)

LAMPEDUSA - More than his Scud missiles, Europe has reason to fear that the Muammar Gaddafi could send dozens of ships packed with would-be immigrants toward Europe in the wake of Western air strikes on Libya. The front line of such retaliation would be Lampedusa, the Italian island just 180 miles north of the Libyan coast that has been struggling with the ebbs and flows of immigration from North Africa for the past decade.

Currrently, there are already 3,800 immigrants on the small island of 6,000 residents, after a recent wave of small boats arriving from Tunisia that followed unrest there. The fragile balance that is somehow still holding in place would be sure to snap if boats began to embark from the Libyan coast as well -- and the consequences of mass influx are hard to predict.

Nobody in Lampedusa spotted the French fighter jets go by on their way to bomb Libyan military forces. And residents were relieved by the reassurances of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his defense minister, who said that Gaddafi's missiles could not reach the island.

Memories are still vivid of Gaddafi's attempt on April 15, 1986 to strike Lampedusa in retaliation for the American bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi, and the death of his daughter. Libya fired two Scuds at the U.S. Coast Guard navigation station that was then located on the Italian island, but the missiles overshot their target, landing in the sea and causing no damage.

Now, instead, authorities agree that the urgent problem -- a ticking bomb, some say -- is how to deal with the thousands of migrants who hang out in the island's streets, often outnumbering residents.

Giuseppe Caruso, the island's special commissioner in charge of dealing with the immigrant emergency, is demanding that a Navy ship be used to house some of the migrants. This would allow authorities to relieve some of the burden from the island's overcrowded immigrant center.

The center is currently housing 2,600 people, far beyond its capacity of 800, making the living conditions unsustainable and raising fears of health risks. The San Marco ship, currently docked in the port of Augusta, north on the main island of Sicily, is expected to arrive in Lampedusa as early as Monday to take in some 700 people. Immigrant centers in other parts of Italy will take in more migrants as space becomes available.

Authorities are also looking to build a tent camp with a capacity of 500 people, and are awaiting supplies, including disposable toilets, to arrive by ship. While this is only a stopgap measure, it's still better than leaving the migrants by the maritime station where about 1,000 of the latest arrivals have been camping out.

Italy's President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, has weighed in, saying he felt close to Lampedusa's people for the difficulties they are facing, urging other Italian regions to show solidarity and share a burden that the island cannot possibly sustain on its own.

These words have encouraged the island's mayor. "We are hopeful that within the next 24 to 48 hours the situation can improve," said Dino De Rubeis, adding that he had received reassurances that by Tuesday the government would answer his requests for help.

The mayor urged residents to remain calm, after dozens of them staged a protest at the port over the weekend that prevented several immigrant boats from docking for several hours. What eventually reassured the residents was not the authorities' words, but news that the Navy ship was on its way, a sign that things might be moving.

With summer approaching, the island has much at stake with the events shaking other parts of the world. Hotel reservations are down 25 percent already, and the prospect of a cut in summer business is alarming for residents who largely live off seasonal tourism.

The island is waiting for help, and the calm that has been restored is only apparent. Tensions are simmering below the surface and might explode at any moment: on Saturday afternoon, a group of people from the far-right group Forza Nuova came face to face with a group of migrants. There were shouts and tense moments, but nothing more.

But the tiniest spark could trigger a spiral of violence, and Italy has finally stepped up law enforcement on the island, including 100 additional soldiers have been deployed to patrol the immigrant center.

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