ROME • Italy summoned Austria's ambassador after Vienna threatened to send troops to the border to stop migrants entering, as the number crossing the Mediterranean topped 100,000 this year.
Fresh tensions have been rising over Europe's migrant crisis, with Austrian Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil saying on Monday that his country would close its border with Italy and send soldiers to guard it, if there was no slowdown in arrivals.
While the Austrian authorities said there had been no recent surge in border crossings despite the huge numbers landing in Italy, Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz warned: "We are getting ready and will protect our Brenner border if necessary".
He was referring to the main Brenner mountain pass through the Alps between Italy and Austria.
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Controls at the Brenner Pass would be particularly sensitive as the frontier there separates two regions that feel closely connected - Austria's Tyrol and Italy's South Tyrol.The border is open as part of Europe's Schengen passport-free zone and has seen between 15 and 40 migrant arrivals daily in recent weeks, said police in Austrian Tyrol.
Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti said on Tuesday that he was "frankly surprised" by Mr Doskozil's threat, considering "there is clearly no emergency at the Brenner Pass and cooperation with the Austrian police works perfectly". He slammed it as "an unjustified and unprecedented initiative" that he said would "impact security cooperation" between the two countries "if not immediately corrected".
Announcing that arrivals had passed the 100,000 mark this year, the United Nations' International Organisation for Migration said nearly 2,250 people had died so far this year attempting to make the perilous Mediterranean crossing.
Italy has taken in nearly 85 per cent of this year's arrivals - most of them sub-Saharan Africans crossing from conflict-ravaged Libya - and has pleaded for help from other European Union nations, saying it is struggling to cope.
On Sunday, Mr Minniti called on EU neighbours to open their ports to rescue ships picking up migrants, after Italy issued a drastic threat to close its own ports to the boats. But France rejected that idea, with an aide to Mr Minniti's counterpart, Mr Gerard Collomb, saying this would only encourage more migrants to set sail.
Italy, France and Germany have suggested creating a "code of conduct" to regulate the operations of privately run rescue boats, as well as bolstering the Libyan coast guard.
But the Red Cross slammed it as "short-sighted at best to think the migrant issue can be tackled by pointing the finger at those who save lives at sea and financing the coast guard of a nation like Libya that has not signed international treaties on refugees".
The European Commission on Tuesday unveiled a new plan that envisages €35 million (S$55 million) in aid for Italy and working with Libya and other countries to stem the flow of migrants at the source. The EU should, in particular, help Libya better control its porous southern border and work further with other African countries - Egypt, Niger, Ethiopia and Sudan - to get them to take back their nationals, the Commission said.
The plan will be discussed by an EU interior ministers' meeting in Estonia's capital Tallinn today to address the migrant crisis - the continent's worst since World War II.