MELILLA, Spain – Dozens of African illegal immigrants who charged across the border into Spain”s north African enclave of Melilla have been sent back to Morocco, officials said Friday, after a week of deadly clashes at two enclaves.
The 73 men from Mali were flown out of Melilla on Thursday evening to Algeciras, on the Spanish mainland, where they were they put aboard a ferry bound for the Moroccan city of Tangiers, said a police spokesman in Algeciras, under customary condition of anonymity. He said there were no plans for more deportations on Friday.
Television images from Melilla showed the men, who were handcuffed, being escorted to planes by policemen. Other images showed them taking the ferry in Algeciras at night.
They were the first group of immigrants to be expelled after Spanish authorities announced on Wednesday that they would turn Africans who made it into the enclave of Melilla over to Moroccan authorities.
For the past week, increasing waves of men from impoverished, sub-Saharan African nations seeking to set foot on European territory have charged guard posts along the borders separating the centuries-old Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta from Morocco.
Six men died on Thursday during a violent assault by 400 immigrants trying to enter Melilla.
Abdellah Bendhiba, the governor of Morocco”s Nador province, told the official Moroccan news agency MAP that the men "displayed exceptional violence, obliging the security services to respond in the framework of legitimate defense."
"Unfortunately, six of the assailants died," he reportedly said.
Moroccan police opened fire as the illegal immigrants rushed the post, killing several of them, said a government official in Rabat. However, others among the six suffocated to death, trampled in the stampede, said the official who was not authorized to speak publicly and asked that his name not be used. He did not provide a breakdown on the number killed by gunfire.
MAP said the Moroccan guard posts were located in the Gurugu forest, dense pines on a hill that overlooks Melilla. Many would-be immigrants spend months living in forests on the Moroccan side waiting to cross over.
The enclaves were reported calm overnight, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry in Melilla said on Friday.
Last Thursday, five people died of gunshot wounds when some 600 Africans tried to climb fences and reach the other enclave, Ceuta. Spanish Interior Minister Jose Antonio Alonso said Thursday that Spanish police did not use live ammunition and thus were not be responsible for the deaths.
The reported deaths intensified a crisis that has been brewing since the frenzied rushes on Melilla and Ceuta began in August. The volume of men involved magnified dramatically, with six huge rushes over the past week and hundreds of men scaling razor-wire fences to reach the small European outposts.
Spain announced the expulsions Wednesday night as it struggled to cope with an overflowing holding facility housing 1,600 immigrants in Melilla.
On Thursday, Africans housed there expressed horror at the prospect of going back to Morocco. Many recounted long journeys, some taking years, and then more months of hunger, cold and beatings by police after reaching the forests overlooking the Melilla border.
"We thought we were at the end of our journey. It was nothing but happiness," said Jean Calvin, a 22-year-old man from Cameroon who spent three years getting to Morocco, then two more in the bush. "Now, suddenly, everything has changed. Words escape me."
An aide to Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega told The Associated Press on Thursday that the next expulsions will be done on a case-by-case basis with individuals or small groups, although she did not rule out expulsions of larger groups.
Also Friday, Spanish police caught 53 North Africans, including 11 minors, trying to reach Spain in a small boat. They had crossed from Morocco overnight and were spotted off the town of Almunecar, off Spain”s southern coast.
Hundreds of Africans try to reach Spain in boats every week. Many drown while making the crossing.