Police clear migrant camp on France-Italy border

Vincent-Xavier Morvan

Ventimiglia (Italy) (AFP) - Italian police cleared a migrant camp on Italy's border with France on Wednesday, forcing the occupants to leave the area after a last-ditch protest on the shores of the Mediterranean.

The camp of around 50 people at Ventimiglia -- the town which became a flashpoint at the start of Europe's migrant crisis earlier this year -- was cleared because its occupants were using electricity and water without paying for it, a police spokesman said.

Some 30 migrants and 20 Italian activists, who had been given advance notice of the evacuation, moved to rocks on the shoreline before the police arrived, deputy police chief Giuseppe Maggese told AFP.

The protesters refused to budge from their perch for most of the day, only agreeing to be taken by bus to a reception centre after the intervention of the bishop of Ventimiglia.

The activists were to be interviewed later by police.

The sit-in began after police moved to close down the makeshift camp, which held up to 250 people at one point according to local officials.

A cordon of about 30 policemen fanned out along the shoreline in front of the migrants, some of whom threatened to jump into the sea, while others held up a banner in English reading: "We want freedom to cross the border."

- 'Camp was illegal' -

Ventimiglia has become a flashpoint in an increasingly bitter war of words between European countries over what to do with the thousands of migrants landing on their doorstep, fleeing war, poverty and persecution.

A crackdown on border controls in the area in June turned the town into a focal point for migrants protesting that they should be allowed to enter France on their way to their desired destinations in northern Europe.

"This situation could not go on. We understand why they are protesting but the camp was illegal," Ventimiglia mayor Enrico Ioculano told Italian media.

Tents and personal belongings from the camp -- which sprawls under an overpass some 100 metres from the French border -- were removed by garbage trucks.

A similar eviction in June ended in clashes which left one police officer injured.

Police said a dozen migrants had been arrested early Wednesday, including a Bosnian wanted under an international arrest warrant.

A group of French activists hoping to cheer on the migrants in their protest were moved on by Italian police.

"It is abominable, these migrants are fleeing wars and come here seeking a better life. And this is Italy's answer," said Teresa Maffeis, founder of the Democracy Association in Nice.

The head of Italy's anti-immigrant Northern League party was quick to applaud the camp evacuation on Twitter, saying: "better late than never. Now we await (migrant) expulsions".