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Italy Intercepts Ship with 1,000 Mostly-Kurdish Migrants - 2002-03-18

In Italy, a ship carrying about 1,000 illegal immigrants, many of them children, has been towed into a port in Sicily. Now, Italian authorities are searching for ways to care for them.

Italian police said there were hundreds of children on board the merchant vessel Monica, which was towed into the Sicilian port of Catania. Coast guard and navy officials watched over the operation as civil protection officials provided first aid to those on board.

Italian police said there were 1,000 mainly Kurdish immigrants on the ship. It is believed to be the largest-ever influx of illegal immigrants on the island.

The Italian navy intercepted the vessel in the middle of the night. To prevent navy officials from boarding the ship, the would-be immigrants threatened to throw the children overboard.

But after brief negotiations in which the immigrants were told they were in Italian waters and would be allowed to land, officials were allowed to board.

Shortly after the vessel arrived in port, police called a helicopter to take a woman to hospital. She had just given birth to a baby girl on the ship. Both mother and daughter are now reported to be in good condition. Two other pregnant women were also on board the vessel.

The Monica had departed from Sidon in Lebanon. Its captain said he was headed to Tunisia, but officials believe the vessel's true destination was always southern Italy. Landings of illegal immigrants are an almost daily occurrence on Italian shores, especially in the warmer months. Police have great difficulty patrolling the long Italian coastline.

Every year, thousands of immigrants attempt to enter the European Union via Italy. Many come from Albania and cross the Adriatic in rubber dinghies.

Others arrive from Turkey, North Africa and Asia. Most of them use Italy as a transit country to make their way to other EU nations.