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Tensions rise as refugees continue to flood Italian island

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LAMPEDUSA, Italy — Pressures continued to mount on the Italian island of Lampedusa Saturday as refugee centers began to buckle under the weight of the inflow of people and residents continued to protest the refugees' presence.

A further 378 refugees arrived overnight into Saturday, according to Italian media, further stretching already overcrowded facilities. Between Friday and Saturday, 15 boats arrived, carrying refugees predominantly from Tunisia.

A reception center designed to hold 850 people was currently housing well over 3,000.

"The situation is not fit for humans. We're even lacking water," volunteers told Italy's RAI broadcaster.

The island has appealed to the national government for the use of a naval vessel to help ease the strain, reported the Ansa news agency, citing military sources. The boat could transport a great number of the refugees to other facilities, island residents hope.

The Italian government was busy trying to find space for asylum seekers on Sicily or mainland Italy. About 200 asylum seekers were to take up residence Saturday in a facility formerly used by U.S. military personnel.

The Mineo facility, near Catania, has space for 7,000. The first 200 moved in on Friday.

Additionally, government officials were going to try anew Saturday to see if there was space to set up a tent city on a former military base in western Lampedusa, in the hopes of relieving pressure on the main facility.

On Friday, the island's residents prevented coast guard ships holding refugees rescued from rickety boats from landing for hours by blocking the piers of the two harbours.

The UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) warned that the situation could escalate if more people flee Libya due to the ongoing conflict there.

In mid-February, shortly after the fall of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, around 5,600 refugees arrived on Lampedusa within the space of a few days.

The 12-square-mile island south of Sicily has just 4,500 inhabitants. Just 80 miles from Tunisia's coast, it has long been seen as a gateway to Europe.

Meanwhile, Tunisia's deposed president Ben Ali is hoping to find refuge in Belgium, the Flemish newspaper De Morgen reported on Saturday.

Ben Ali already has close family in the Relegem region of northern Belgium and wants to relocate there, the paper reported.

Since the former president fled to Saudi Arabia after protests which toppled him in his home country in January, his whereabouts have been unclear.

The Belgian Foreign Ministry said it was "up to date" with attempts by Ben Ali to join his family, but would make no further comment, the news agency Belga reported.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.