Italy has appealed for urgent EU aid to halt a wave of illegal immigrants fleeing Tunisia as hundreds more arrived by boat.

The new arrivals on the island of Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost point, took to more than 5,000 the number of undocumented immigrants intercepted by coastguards and brought to the tiny outcrop in the past five days.

The immigrants said they were fleeing poverty and continued unrest in the North African state in the wake of an uprising last month that ousted veteran ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power.

A spokesman said European Union home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem ‘is fully aware of the exceptional pressure on Italy’ and was looking at ways to assist the Italian authorities.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is set to visit Tunisia tomorrow. Her spokesman said the flood of immigrants was a side-issue to the original purpose of her visit, which was to nurture democratic reforms.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Tunisian condemned a suggestion by Rome that Italian police could be sent to the country to stem the flow of illegal immigrants.

‘It is unacceptable,’ Taieb Baccouche said when asked to react to a statement by Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni that he would ask Tunisia ‘for authorisation for our forces to intervene in Tunisia to block the flux.’