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Spain expels thousands of migrants who crossed into its north African enclave

More than half of the roughly 8,000 people who entered Ceuta were expelled by Spanish troops by Wednesday
Migrants return to Morocco from El Tarajal beach on the Spanish-Moroccan border after thousands swam across the border, in Ceuta, Spain, 19 May 2021 (Reuters)

Spain has deployed troops to its north African enclave of Ceuta after thousands of people trying to reach Europe entered the territory on Monday.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez vowed on Tuesday to re-establish order, as soldiers and police used batons to clear people from the beach and threw smoke bombs to discourage others from crossing.

By Wednesday, Sanchez said as many as 4,800 of the more than 8,000 who had entered Ceuta during the previous two days had been sent back.

Security forces on both sides intervened to prevent more from crossing.

"We are carrying out the immediate handover of those who have entered irregularly," Sanchez told parliament.

Around 8,000 people, many from Sub-Saharan Africa, and including 1,500 minors, entered the enclave on Monday and Tuesday by swimming in or climbing over the fence.

The regional leader of Ceuta criticised what he described as Morocco's passivity in the face of Monday's surge.

Some independent experts said Rabat had initially allowed the surge as a means of pressuring Madrid over its decision to admit a rebel leader from Western Sahara to a Spanish hospital.

The Spanish government did not make that connection, with Sanchez calling the north African nation a friend of Spain and the interior ministry citing cooperation over the readmissions, although Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya told Morocco's ambassador that Spain rejected and disapproved of the mass arrivals.

Rabat has recalled its ambassador to Madrid for consultations, said a diplomatic source who declined to be named. He added that relations with Spain needed a moment of "contemplation".

Moroccan authorities did not respond to requests for comment.

Moroccan TV footage showed authorities setting up barriers on Tuesday afternoon to prevent people from crossing into Ceuta. But footage filmed from the Spanish side earlier showed a Moroccan soldier or policeman waving dozens running through a gate to no-man's land without any checks.

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"This sudden arrival of irregular migrants is a serious crisis for Spain and Europe," Sanchez said in a televised address before his arrival in Ceuta.

European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas tweeted that the enclave's frontier was a European border, expressing his "full solidarity with Spain".

Ceuta, with a population of 80,000, is on the northern tip of Morocco across from Gibraltar. Along with another Spanish enclave, Melilla, it has long been a magnet for Africans seeking a better life in Europe. Morocco has a claim on both.

The spike in arrivals took place after Rabat expressed its anger last month when Spain discreetly admitted Brahim Ghali, the leader of Western Sahara's rebel Polisario Front, to hospital. Madrid said it acted on purely humanitarian grounds.

Morocco's foreign ministry criticised what it said was Spain's decision to admit Ghali under a false identity without informing Morocco, warning of repercussions.

The Polisario Front wants Western Sahara to be an independent state rather than part of Morocco.

Algeria, Morocco's regional rival, backs the Polisario Front.

in December, the United States recognised Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara territory.