Tunisia demands Italy release fishermen detained for 'rescuing migrants'
Bouraoui Limam, the Information and Communication Director of Tunisia Foreign Affairs Ministry made the announcement on Thursday as anger over the fishermen's arrest brewed in their home country.
The boat of the fishermen, who come from Zarzis in southeast Tunisia, was carrying 14 people and heading towards the Italian island of Lampedusa last week when it was stopped.
The fishermen insist that while they were at sea on 30 August, they spotted a boat of migrants close to sinking, 20km away in Italian waters. They came to its resue, helping migrants onboard. However they were later stopped by Italian authorities, and charged with facilitating illegal immigration.
One of the detained fishermen is Chamseddine Bourassine, the president of the Association of Fishermen in Zarzis. His supporters at home have led protests calling for his release.
The fishermen could face a 15-year sentence if convicted, according to the BBC.
|A picture released by the Italian finance and customs squad
(Guarda di Finanza), shows a fishing vessel towing
a migrants' boat towards the Italian island of Lampedusa [Getty]
The Tunisian Secretary of State for Immigration Adel Jarboui said on Thursday that, "the families of those fishermen must be reassured about the health state of their relatives, and Tunisian authorities will not let them down. The fishermen will be released as soon as possible."
Five of the migrants were repatriated to Tunisia on Monday, while the others, who are all under the age of 18, remain in a detention center in southern Italy.
Under Italy's new far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini, the country has taken on a harsh anti-immigration stance.
It routinely blocks boats containing migrants from the Mediterranean from docking at its ports, sparking frequent crises where migrant boats are stranded for weeks at a time.
A growing number of Tunisians seeking a better future are trying to cross the Mediterranean and enter Europe illegally.
In the first half of 2018, Tunisian authorities arrested 2,659 people for trying to cross the sea illegally, compared to 564 people during the same period last year.
Hundreds have drowned in a series of deadly shipwrecks in recent months - that latest on June 3 left 87 people dead.
Agencies contributed to this report.
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