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Spain PM heads to Ceuta amid Morocco row

Spain’s prime minister has flown to the country’s North African enclave of Ceuta amid signs of a crisis after nearly 7000 people managed to reach the border fence when Moroccan officials suddenly suspended security controls.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez cancelled his attendance at a summit in Paris and flew to Ceuta by helicopter where he was due to meet Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska, according to state television station RTVE and other media.

Sanchez said he wanted to gain an overview of the situation and reassure the public of Spain’s support.

Earlier, Spain had returned 2700 migrants to Morocco after they reached Ceuta the previous day, an event that Spain said only happened because Morocco wanted to mete out punishment for officials in Madrid providing aid to a separatist.

In the past day, nearly 7000 people managed to walk along the coast to the border fence to Ceuta after Morocco suddenly suspended security controls along the Mediterranean coastline without explanation.

From there, they only had to swim around a breakwater to get to Ceuta – and by definition, Europe.

Spanish media said the move was deliberate as the Moroccan government is reportedly annoyed that Spanish officials allowed the entry of Brahim Ghali, secretary general of the Polisario Front movement, to the Spanish mainland.

The movement seeks the independence of North Africa’s disputed Western Sahara.

Ghali has been treated in Spain for coronavirus since April.

He is seen as a war criminal by the Moroccan government and its officials have issued strong criticism of Spain’s move 10 days ago, calling it unjustifiable.

Sanchez described the events as a “serious crisis” for the country and vowed to do everything possible to guarantee Spain’s security.

Back in Madrid, the foreign ministry summoned Morocco’s ambassador to express the government’s dismay with the situation.

Spain returned the migrants unusually quickly.

About 1500 people were returned within the space of hours, according to Grande-Marlaska.

He pledged to continue returning the migrants.

Thousands of people were waiting on the other side for a chance to try and reach Ceuta.

Some threw stones at Spanish security forces, who responded with tear gas.

Spanish television showed soldiers accompanying migrants, some limping, across beaches to border fences.

Swimmers meanwhile tried to reach the shore but were prevented from doing so by soldiers.

Emergency crews with stretchers carried away only those who were completely exhausted.

On television, one Spanish judge questioned whether the deportations were legally permissible.

The Moroccan government has not commented on the events.

In Ceuta, the authorities were overwhelmed and could do no more than save people from drowning.

One person died, local media reported.

About 2000 of the people who have arrived since Monday morning are minors, according to officials, so cannot be deported immediately.

Most of the adults, who were initially left to wander around the city, were taken to a stadium for shelter.

The minors were placed in a reception camp, which quickly became overcrowded.

“We are providing people with the essentials, dry clothes, food and water,” Isabel Brasero, of the Spanish Red Cross told local media.

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