BRUSSSELS (Reuters) - Al Qaeda members may be among thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean by boat from Africa to Europe, posing a potential security risk for the European Union, Italy's Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said on Monday.
Italy is seeking more help from its EU partners to tackle a crisis that has seen thousands of African migrants arrive in Sicily this year and hundreds of deaths en route.
"We ... have suspicions that among the immigrants there are jihadist elements and members of al Qaeda," Bonino told a news conference during an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels which discussed the issue.
She said that at the moment she would not talk about a terrorism threat, but rather "a security threat" posed by the jihadists.
Italy wants the EU to launch a mission against human trafficking and organised crime in the Mediterranean under the bloc's common security policy.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said foreign ministers had discussed the security implications for the 28-nation EU of illegal migration.
Italy has increased patrols in the seas between Libya, Tunisia and Italy since more than 360 mainly Eritrean migrants drowned in early October when their boat capsized off Lampedusa. A second boat sank a week later, leaving an estimated 200 people missing.
The island's reception centre has struggled to deal with a deluge of migrants fleeing civil war and unrest in Syria, Egypt and other Arab and African countries, which has swelled numbers making the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean sea, often on rickety and ill-equipped boats.
More than 32,000 migrants from Africa and the Middle East have arrived in Italy and Malta so far this year, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, with many leaving from the lawless ports of Libya.
The EU is expected to take decisions in December on what to do to help southern European states deal with mass migration from Africa.
(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio, writing by Adrian Croft; editing by Ralph Boulton)