Tunisia arrests migrants, seizes boats as part of sweeping crackdown on human trafficking

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By Tarek Amara

TUNIS, Sept 16 (Reuters) – Tunisian police, backed by planes and anti-terrorism units, arrested hundreds of migrants and seized boats on Saturday as part of a broad crackdown on migrant smuggling in the region coastal town of Sfax, a key departure point for migrants bound for Europe. .

The operation, which the government says was ordered by President Kais Saied, comes as the Italian island of Lampedusa grapples with a record number of migrant boat landings from North Africa.

Tunisian National Guard units searched homes where hundreds of migrants were staying, intercepted trucks carrying migrants to beaches and seized boats used by smugglers, officials and witnesses said.

Several suspected smugglers were arrested during this operation involving planes, police dogs, military trucks and hundreds of police officers in the towns of Jebiniana, Kerkennah, Msatria and Sfax, the capital of the governorate.

“The air operation aims to target smugglers who trade in the pain of frustrated people,” National Guard Col. Houssem Jbebli told reporters.

Saied ordered the crackdown to deal with the “unacceptable influx of migrants”, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

Tunisia is under heavy pressure from Italy and the European Union, which have promised 1 billion euros in European funds to help the struggling Tunisian economy, in exchange for stemming the flow of migrants .

In recent days, around 7,000 people arriving from North Africa on boats have landed on the small Italian island of Lampedusa, prompting calls for help from the island’s mayor.

In total, some 126,000 migrants by boat have arrived in Italy since the start of the year, almost double the 64,529 recorded during the same period of 2022, according to data from the Italian Interior Ministry.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on Friday called on the European Union to act jointly “with a naval mission if necessary” to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa. (Reporting by Tarek Amara, editing by Helen Popper)

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