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Morocco, Spain trade accusations over Western Sahara

In this file photo taken on May 19, 2021 migrant minors wait to be tested for COVID-19 upon their arrival in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. (Photo by AFP)

Tensions between Morocco and Spain have escalated, with each side accusing the other of violating good 'neighborliness' in a dispute triggered by the Western Sahara territorial issue.

Last month, the Spanish North African enclave of Ceuta saw an unprecedented influx of migrants crossing from Morocco. That was seen as retaliation for Spain's decision to discreetly admit Western Sahara independence movement leader Brahim Ghali for medical treatment.

"It is not acceptable for a government to say that we will attack the borders, that we will open up the borders to let in 10,000 migrants in less than 48 hours ... because of foreign policy disagreements," Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said at a news conference on Monday.

Spain has sent most migrants who crossed into Ceuta back to Morocco, but not the minors.

Sanchez said he wanted to convey a constructive attitude toward Morocco, but insisted that border security was paramount.

"Remember that neighborliness ... must be based on respect and confidence," he said.

Meanwhile, Morocco's Foreign Ministry blamed Spain for violating good neighborliness and breaking "mutual trust and respect".

The ministry said that migration was not the problem, noting that it had always cooperated with Madrid in curbing migrant flows and in fighting terrorism, which it said had helped thwart more than 80 militant attacks in Spain.

The case of Ghali "revealed the hostile attitudes and harmful strategies of Spain regarding the Moroccan Sahara," the ministry said in a statement on Monday.

Spain "cannot combat separatism at home and promote it in its neighbor," it said, referring to Rabat's support for Madrid against the Catalan independence movement.

Morocco annexed the vast Western Sahara region, a former Spanish colony, in the 1970s and has since been in conflict with the Algeria-backed Polisario Front -- a movement that seeks to establish an independent state in the territory and end Morocco's presence there.

Morocco is currently in control of 80 percent of the region, including its phosphate deposits and fishing waters.

The UN has deployed the peacekeeping mission, MINURSO, to the region to monitor a 1991 ceasefire and to supposedly organize a referendum on the region's status.

Ghali, who has been receiving treatment for coronavirus at a hospital in Logrono in Spain's Rioja region, is scheduled to appear at a high court hearing on Tuesday via video conference.

He is the subject of two investigations in Spain, one of them relates to allegations of torture at Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf and the other relates to allegations of genocide, murder, terrorism, torture and disappearances.

Morocco, which has recalled its ambassador to Madrid, has warned that it may go as far as severing ties with Spain if Ghali leaves the country the same way he entered, without a trial.

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