Tempers flare over Spanish enclave

The Spanish border post at Melilla has become the centre of a diplomatic row with allegations the border guards have beaten Moroccan visitors.

BORDER OF BENI ENZAR, MOROCCO and MELILLA, SPAIN // Rachid Ezzyachi parked his truck, with a load of gravel, on a bridge at the centre of a diplomatic row between Spain and Morocco. In the glare of the lights at the Spanish border post at Melilla stood about 20 Moroccan demonstrators threatening to block goods from entering the city, a coastal Spanish enclave. It was yet another protest by Moroccans who say that Spanish border guards in Melilla have beaten Moroccan visitors.

"I'm with them in principle," said Mr Ezzyachi, from the nearby Moroccan city of Nador. "But tonight, I just want to make my delivery and get home to my kids." Spain's interior minister, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, is due in Morocco today for talks with his counterpart, Taieb Cherkaoui, aimed at resolving the dispute. But analysts say that tensions go deeper than the recent trouble at the Melilla border.

Tempers have flared since mid-July as Morocco has accused Spanish police of beating Moroccans entering the enclave and of abandoning sub-Saharan migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. Spain has denied the claims and scrambled to contain the crisis. King Juan Carlos has called Morocco's King Mohamed VI to discuss the tensions and Spain's top police official, Francisco Javier Velázquez, has travelled to Morocco for meetings. Both countries have pledged to maintain good relations.

"Ultimately this is about more than the behaviour of the Spanish police," said Mohamed Darif, a politics professor at Morocco's Mohammedia University. "Tension has been building silently since last year." Mr Darif said problems began festering in December when Morocco expelled Aminatou Haidar, an activist from Moroccan-held Western Sahara. Morocco sent her to Spain but allowed her back after a 32-day hunger strike.

Spain has since frowned on Morocco's appointment of a defector from Western Sahara's Algerian-backed independence movement as ambassador to Madrid. Morocco has restated claims to Melilla and Ceuta, Spanish cities on Morocco's Mediterranean coast. The countries co-operate on fighting terrorism, drug trafficking and illegal migration. But Morocco sometimes uses the enclaves to pressure Spain on other issues, said Michael Willis, a professor of Moroccan and Mediterranean studies at Oxford University. "The Moroccans know that the Spanish are sensitive about it."

A surprise visit to Melilla last week by José Maria Aznar, a former Spanish prime minister, provoked cries of disloyalty from Spain's government. Mr Aznar's opposition Partido Popular, in turn, has accused the government of forsaking Melilla's police when they most need government support. For two weeks, Moroccan activists have posted banners denouncing Spanish police on the bridge that links the Moroccan town of Beni Enzar with Melilla. They have twice blocked trucks carrying food and building materials into the enclave.

While the blockade's effect has been minimal, such agitation "sends a belligerent message", said Irene Flores, director of El Faro de Melilla, a local newspaper. In some quarters, that message meets with approval. "The blockade should have happened a long time ago," said Ahmed, a fruit vendor in Melilla's central market who asked that his surname not be printed. Born in Melilla but denied citizenship as a Muslim under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, Ahmed resettled in Morocco. Today he enters the enclave daily with a special permit.

"My grandfathers fought for Franco in the Spanish civil war," he said. "I'm third-generation Melillense, but what has it gotten me?" In the market cafe, another third-generation Melillense, Jesus Justo Martinez, was finishing tea and toast with his wife and son. "If a blockade hits the construction sector, I'll have an even harder time finding work," said Mr Martinez, an unemployed metalworker. "But here's my answer to those who say Melilla isn't Spanish," he said, rising to display a T-shirt reading "YO SOY ESPANOL, ESPANOL, ESPANOL."

Spain captured Melilla in 1497 and spent centuries fending off attempts on the city by Moroccan rulers and Berber tribes. Today red and gold Spanish flags flutter atop a town centre largely designed by Enrique Nieto, a disciple of Gaudí, and packed with employees of the Spanish state. However, Melilla is also a target for sub-Saharan migrants and an economic lifeline for its Moroccan neighbours. More than one-third of the city's 77,000 inhabitants are Muslim with family ties in Morocco, said Driss Amar, president of the Badr Islamic Association, a federation of Melilla mosques.

"There's a coming and going, a common interest," he said. Every morning thousands of Moroccans come up from Nador, along the lagoon of Mar Chica. They turn down a long dusty boulevard haunted by beggars and jammed with traffic to enter Melilla to work and buy goods from Europe. Last Wednesday, the protesters said they would suspend the blockade until at least after Ramadan. But at the border crossing last Tuesday, Mr Ezzyachi, the truck driver, waited to see whether the protesters would let him pass. For an hour the trucks stood immobile as sheet lightening flickered blue above. Finally, the protesters drew aside.

As the first drops of a summer storm pelted down, Mr Ezzyachi breathed a sigh of relief and started his engine. @Email:jthorne@thenational.ae This article has been altered to reflect an inference in the original summary that Melilla's Muslim citizens had been protesting against alleged police abuses. The allegations of abuse came from Morrocans.

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