Desperate migrants lay siege to Spain's African border

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of Africans tried to storm the wall of "fortress" Europe yesterday by scaling the fences surrounding the Spanish enclave of Melilla, on the border with Morocco, in an attempt to reach the wealthy continent beyond.

Waves of would-be migrants descended on the 10ft fence before dawn, deploying scores of makeshift ladders in what authorities called the biggest attempt of its kind to force entrance to the enclave.

Spanish officials said about one-fifth of an estimated 500 Africans made it into Spanish territory before being detained by police. An estimated 270 ladders made from tree branches were collected from the scene.

Spain's interior ministry estimates that 11,000 would-be migrants, mainly sub-Saharan Africans have tried to crossthe barrier this year. The tiny coastal enclave of Melilla is Madrid's sovereign territory and less than 100 miles from Spain.

The increasing numbers of migrants desperate to find a route out of Africa, have led Spanish authorities to strengthen security, with riot gear being deployed and officials calling for the height of the fence to be doubled.

Narciso Serrano, from the interior ministry in Melilla, said those detained yesterday were taken to a police station for identification. At least 19 people, including 12 immigrants, were slightly injured in the incident. Most of them suffered cuts and bruises. One policeman was treated for a sprained wrist.

In August, police used riot gear against a group of some 300 migrants trying to cross the fence. Human rights groups said a 17-year-old man from Cameroon died that night and cited a claim from Médecins Sans Frontières that he could have died from internal bleeding after a police beating. The police said it was impossible to conclude that they had anything to do with his death.

Two other immigrants have also died in unclear circumstances at the Moroccan border crossing.

Each year, thousands of Africans, many packed into small boats, try to reach Spanish territory in search of an improved lifestyle. Many are caught and many drown while attempting the crossing, but officials estimate that thousands manage to slip through.

The six-mile Melilla border is one of the three main routes for migrants trying to enter Spain from Morocco. The others are across the short stretches of water to the Canary Islands or to the southern coast of mainland Spain.

Yesterday's incident came just hours after two Spanish secretaries of state visited Melilla. One of them, Consuelo Rumi, said that Morocco was doing its best to stem the flow of illegal immigrants to Spain but faced similar problems of its own. "Morocco today ... is a country which not only sends out immigrants but also receives immigration from sub-Saharan Africa," she said.

Spain has ruled Melilla and its sister north African enclave Ceuta since the late 15th century. Morocco has claimedboth as its sovereign territory.