(AFP) ROME

25/08/09

Five Eritreans rescued off the Italian island of Lampedusa last week claiming to be the only survivors among 78 boat people face fines for illegal immigration under a new law, a news report said Monday.

Citing the law that took effect earlier this month, a prosecutor in Agrigente, Sicily, placed the five under investigation, the ANSA news agency reported.

The law imposes a fine of between 5,000 and 10,000 euros (14,000 dollars) for trying to enter Italy illegally.

The Eritreans told the Italian coastguard after their rescue last Thursday that 73 compatriots died during the voyage lasting some 23 days.

They said many ships passed them by, with only one providing them with fuel and pointing out the way to Lampedusa.

The incident rekindled debate over a hard-line approach to illegal immigration adopted by the centre-right government of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

An Italian Catholic newspaper slammed apparent indifference to the plight of boat people, drawing a parallel with that shown towards Nazi deportations from 1939.

On Sunday, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini accused the European Union of failing to offer “concrete solutions” to the problem of illegal immigration.

“Immigration is a European problem, which cannot be left only to the countries most exposed to it,” he said.

Arrivals of boat people to Italian shores have dropped off considerably since an accord reached in May between Rome and Tripoli aimed at preventing boat people from setting off from Libya.

But on Monday Algerian and Italian coastguards intercepted 16 would-be immigrants from Algeria who were in a makeshift boat near the Italian island of Sardinia, an Algerian official said.

The group was “rescued from certain death,” said Abdelaziz Zaidi, chief of the coastguard station in Annaba, eastern Algeria.

The Annaba region’s proximity to the Italian coast has made it a jump-off point for many Algerian immigrants. Annaba coastguards have stopped more than 250 would-be immigrants so far this year.