A ship with hundreds of illegal immigrants, many of them believed to be children, docked at the southern Italian port of Gallipoli on Sunday, a coastguard official said.
A coastguard vessel towed the ship, registered in Turkey under the name Ahmet Enon, into the port on the heel of Italy after receiving a Mayday distress call at midnight on Saturday.
"A total of 562 illegal immigrants have been counted, of which 54 are women and 63 children," Lieutenant Vincenzo Amanti of the Gallipoli coastguard office told Reuters. "They're mostly Kurds, Sri Lankans, Iraqis and Iranians," he said.
Amanti said one pregnant woman had been rushed to hospital while officials had tended to the rest on site before they were bussed to immigration reception areas in the area.
Hundreds of refugees seeking a better life in Europe arrive in southern Italy every month after making the sometimes dangerous trip across the Adriatic Sea, mostly from Albania and Turkey.
The European Union has put pressure on Turkey, Italy and Balkan countries to work together and try to halt the flood of illegal immigrants into Europe.
Those who are held by Italian authorities and not accepted as political refugees or who do not already have a family in Italy are usually returned to their home countries.
In 2000, a total of 66,057 illegal immigrants, who had arrived in Italy either by boat or across northern borders, were expelled, according to figures published on Italy's Interior Ministry website.
Of those, 26,817 people were intercepted as they landed on vessels on Italy's southern coast.
IMMIGRANTS A CAMPAIGN ISSUE
Dealing with illegal immigration is a hotly contested issue in the political campaign for the May 13 general election.
A survey in January found the presence of immigrants to be the third biggest fear among Italians after job security and crime.
Yet Italy has one of the lowest immigrant populations in Europe at 2.2 percent, official figures for 2000 showed.
The ruling centre-left coalition has pledged to beef up its fight against human traffickers and expel those immigrants not found to have reason to remain on asylum grounds.
The centre-right opposition led by Silvio Berlusconi has promised a big clampdown on illegal immigrants.
The anti-immigrant Northern League, which has big support in rich northern towns and cities, has blamed illegal immigrants for the rise in crime and even the spread of disease.
Gianfranco Fini of the far-right National Alliance party, who will become deputy prime minister if Berlusconi wins the election, said immigrants took jobs which could be filled by unemployed youths in southern Italy.
The jobless rate in some areas of the south is as high as 20 percent whereas in the north it as low as four percent. Italy's overall unemployment rate stood at 9.9 percent in January.
The centre-left government brought in stricter immigration laws in 1998 in answer to criticism from Germany and the Netherlands, which said Italy was a sieve for illegal immigrants entering the European Union.
Now, most illegal immigrants who are found are taken to reception centres. But hundreds of foreign nationals, ferried across the Adriatic by traffickers in Albania and Turkey, assisted by crime gangs in Puglia, still slip through the net.