ROME — A train carrying Tunisian immigrants from Italy was halted at the French border Sunday in an escalation of an international dispute over the fate of North African migrants fleeing political unrest for refuge in Europe.
But France blamed what it said were hundreds of activists on the train planning a demonstration in France, and posing a problem to public order. Traffic was re-established by evening — but not before Italy lodged a formal protest.
“At no time was there a … closing of the border between France and Italy,” French Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henri Brandet said. It was an “isolated problem,” he said by telephone, “an undeclared demonstration.”
He estimated that up to 10 trains may have been affected, five on each side.
There was no immediate Italian reaction to the French explanation late Sunday.
Italy has been giving temporary residence permits to many of the roughly 26,000 Tunisians who have gone to Italy to escape unrest in northern Africa in recent weeks. Many of the Tunisians have family ties or friends in France, the country’s former colonial ruler, and the Italian government says the permits should allow the Tunisians to go there under accords allowing visa-free travel among many European countries.
France says it will honour the permits only if the migrants prove they can financially support themselves and it has instituted patrols on the Italian border — unprecedented since the introduction of the Schengen travel-free zone — bringing in about 80 riot police last week. Germany has said it would do the same.
A spokesman for the Italian rail company, Maurizio Furia, told The Associated Press in Rome that the train carrying migrants and political activists who support them wasn’t allowed to pass into Menton, France, from the border station of Ventimiglia on Sunday.
Italy lodged a protest with the French government, calling the move “illegitimate and in clear violation of general European principles” the Italian Foreign Ministry said. Foreign Minister Franco Frattini ordered his envoy in Paris “to express the strong protest of the Italian government.”
The French Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment.
However, France’s Interior Ministry insisted on the isolated nature of the problem and said that once the train was blocked, activists demonstrated on the train tracks in Vintimiglia, forcing the prefect there to take action because they were blocking traffic.
The ministry spokesman said the French rail authority and the prefect of France’s Alpes-Maritimes region, which governs the French border town of Menton, ordered the train blocked because activists planned an unauthorized demonstration once in France.
“France did not demand the closing of rail traffic between France and Italy. It was a consequence” of the activists plans which threatened public order, Brandet said.
The distinction is critical as tensions rise between Paris and Rome over the migrants.
European nations have been increasingly and bitterly sparring over the issue.
“We have given the migrants travel documents, and we gave everything (else) that is needed, and the European Commission recognized that, it has said that Italy is following the Schengen rules,” Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said in an interview on Italy’s Sky TG24 TV.
Visa-“free travel is legitimate for all those with the papers and who want to go to France,” said Maroni, a top officials of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, a main coalition partner of Premier Silvio Berlusconi.
While he has robustly backed pro-democracy movements in the Arab world, triggered by the Tunisian uprising, conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy is also trying to cut back on the number of migrants arriving in France, whose former colonies in North Africa already provide the majority of immigrants.
France and Italy agreed to joint sea-and-air patrols more than a week ago to block any new North African migrants from sailing to destinations including Italy’s southernmost point, the tiny Mediterranean island of Lampedusa. It is not clear when joint patrols would begin.