© REUTERSA Tunisian woman crosses into Tunisia at the Ras Jdir border crossing, after fleeing unrest in Libya
Up to 1.5 million refugees from North Africa could try to flee across the Mediterranean, Italy warned on Thursday as the government begged for help from the EU in dealing with the potential exodus.

Roberto Maroni, Italy's interior minister, said the worst case scenario could see 1.5 million migrants trying to escape countries like Libya, Tunisia and Egypt - a prediction that dwarfed concerns expressed by Rome earlier this week that 300,000 might seek to enter Europe.

"We cannot be left alone," Mr Maroni, Italy's interior minister, told his EU counterparts at a meeting in Brussels which was convened to address the looming crisis.

He said the arrival of so many refugees would represent "an invasion" which would bring Italy "to its knees".

"I ask Europe to settle all the necessary measures to deal with a catastrophic humanitarian crisis," in Libya.

Italy, Greece and Malta fear that if the Gaddafi regime falls, the floodgates will be opened to the estimated 1.5 million sub-Saharan Africans who live and work in Libya.

They have been deterred from trying to reach Europe in the past two years by a pact agreed between Silvio Berlusconi and Col. Gaddafi in which the Libyan and Italian navies intercepted boats trying to reach Italy's southernmost territories - Sicily and the pinprick islands of Lampedusa and Pantelleria.

The accord, which was condemned by humanitarian groups and the UN, reduced illegal arrivals in Italy from 36,000 in 2008 to 4,300 in 2010.

"What's happening in the Mediterranean is a problem for Europe and for the world," said Mr Maroni. "We have never seen an emergency of this scale."

Italy wants the rest of the EU to create a special emergency fund to provide money, manpower, planes and boats to deal with the feared exodus.

It has the support of the other Mediterranean states: Greece, Malta, Cyprus, France and Spain.

Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, Spain's interior minister, warned at a meeting in Rome on Wednesday that mafia organisations could seek to profit from the chaos by setting up people smuggling operations.

Northern European countries, however, are reluctant to sign up to agreements which would require them to share the burden of unauthorised immigration.

Tobias Billstrom, Sweden's migration minister, pointed out that the Nordic nation of nine million people last year accepted 32,000 asylum-seekers while Italy, with a population of more than 50 million, was begging for aid to deal with 6,300 mostly Tunisians who reached Lampedusa in the last two weeks.

Maria Fekter, the interior minister of Austria, said her country was also much smaller than Italy but had managed to deal with hundreds of thousands of refugees during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.