UP TO 1.5 million refugees from North Africa could try to flee across the Mediterranean, Italy warned yesterday, as the government begged for help from the EU.
Roberto Maroni, Italy's interior minister, said the worst case could see 1.5 million migrants trying to escape countries such as Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.
His prediction dwarfed concerns expressed by Rome earlier this week that 300,000 might seek to enter Europe.
"We cannot be left alone," Mr Maroni told his EU counterparts in Brussels. He said the arrival of so many refugees would represent "an invasion" which would bring Italy "to its knees".
"I ask Europe to settle all the necessary measures to deal with a catastrophic humanitarian crisis," in Libya.
Italy, Greece and Malta fear that if the Gaddafi regime falls, the floodgates will be opened to the estimated 1.5 million sub-Saharan Africans who live and work in Libya.
They have been deterred from trying to reach Europe in the past two years by a pact agreed between Silvio Berlusconi and Col Gaddafi. Under it, the Libyan and Italian navies intercepted boats trying to reach Italy's southernmost territories.
The accord, which was condemned by humanitarian groups and the UN, reduced illegal arrivals in Italy from 36,000 in 2008 to 4,300 in 2010.
Italy wants the rest of the EU to create a special emergency fund to provide money, manpower, planes and boats. It has the support of the other Mediterranean states: Greece, Malta, Cyprus, France and Spain.
Northern European countries, however, are reluctant to sign up to any agreements that would require them to share the burden of unauthorised immigration.
Maria Fekter, the Austrian interior minister, said her country was much smaller than Italy but had managed to deal with hundreds of thousands of refugees during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. (© Daily Telegraph, London)