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Tunisians flee political upheaval for Europe

LAMPEDUSA, Italy – A month after massive protests ousted Tunisia’s longtime dictator, waves of Tunisians are voting with their feet, fleeing the country’s political limbo by climbing into rickety boats and sailing across the Mediterranean to Europe.

More than 5,000 illegal immigrants have recently washed up on Italy’s southern islands – an unintended consequence of the “people’s revolution” that ousted autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and inspired the uprisings in Egypt and beyond.

European powers cheered when Tunisia’s 74-year-old ruler fled into exile in Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, but the fallout a month later has tempered their enthusiasm. It has also exposed a dilemma for Western countries that allied with repressive leaders in North Africa seen as bulwarks against extremism, and now must build new diplomatic relationships in a still-uncertain political climate.

On Monday, the European Union announced a $347 million aid package to Tunisia from now until 2013, with $22.9 million of that to be delivered immediately.

Meanwhile, Tunisia sternly rejected Italy’s offer to send police there to help tackle waves of illegal migrants fleeing political upheaval, most landing on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa – an arid, one-town island of 6,000 people.

Lampedusa’s Mayor Bernardino Rubeis told AP Television News that the island’s detention center for migrants had to leave its doors open since there were not enough police to guard it.

Rubeis said the migrants were milling about, some buying food in shops and not causing any problems.

Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni offered police “contingents, which can patrol the coasts” as well as boats and other equipment and urged the 27-nation European Union to hold a special meeting on immigration strategy.