Italy has begun airlifting illegal immigrants back to Libya, as hundreds continue to arrive on the southern island, Lampedusa. Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu says the repatriations will continue, in an effort to cope with what he describes as an emergency.

Over the weekend, the Italian authorities sent planeloads of illegal immigrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East back to Libya, from the small southern island, Lampedusa. More repatriations are planned.

Authorities want to relieve pressure on the island's only holding center, which was again flooded by hundreds of new arrivals, Saturday night. More than 600 people arrived in just a few hours. The center, which was designed to accommodate just 200 people, was struggling with more than six times that number.

Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu says the government will continue the new policy of repatriation, to cope with what he describes as an emergency. A statement issued by his office says, "The desperate people who still think they can sail illegally to Italy must know they will be sent back to where they came from, as soon as they have been given humanitarian help."

Mr. Pisanu says the assault on Italy's coasts was organized by criminal organizations which he says "pitilessly exploited trafficking in illegal immigrants."

The decision to send illegal immigrants back to their point of departure marks an abrupt change of policy for the Italian government. The center-left opposition has denounced the new policy as too hasty and illegal.

Thousands of illegal immigrants, arriving by sea from North Africa, flood the shores of Lampedusa, every year. The island is the nearest geographical arrival point in the central Mediterranean for those seeking to enter the European Union.

Italy has urged the Libyan authorities to crack down on smugglers of immigrants. It lobbied the European Union to lift an embargo against Tripoli to allow it to equipment to help combat illegal immigration. Italy had also pledged training of Libya's police forces.

The Italian government supports a proposal to set up camps in North Africa to process migrants and asylum-seekers. No agreement on this proposal, which is strongly criticized by human rights organizations, has as yet to be reached by European Union ministers.