Spain is set to send troops into its Morrocan enclaves after the latest attempt by would-be immigrants to storm the fences left five Africans dead and scores more injured.
The attempt to breach the barrier at Ceuta early yesterday was the third this week as Spain's ancient territory on Morocco's Mediterranean coast proves an irresistible draw to those desperate to pass the frontier into Europe.
Television pictures from Ceuta showed the 16ft razor wire fences strewn with ripped clothing and dozens of makeshift ladders.
One refugee died as he scrambled over the spiked metal fence, another was reportedly trampled to death by the crowd of up to 600 desperate refugees who had tramped for months across Africa. More than 100 were injured - 30 requiring hospital treatment.
"[The assault] cost the lives of five people - two on Spanish soil and three in Morocco," said Spain's Deputy Prime Minister, Maria Teresa Fernández de la Vega. She ordered an investigation into the deaths, and said Madrid would announce measures today to deal with the recent explosion of efforts by migrants to force their way into Spain's African territories.
"We had security forces at the perimeter on the alert for something," said Jeronimo Nieto, Madrid's senior representative in Ceuta. "But a group that big, and so organised and co-ordinated, and the sudden way it happened was new to us."
The chairman of a Moroccan organisation representing families of illegal immigrants said refugees came under fire as they rushed Ceuta's barrier in darkness. "Bullets have been fired into the migrants storming the fence to force their way into Spain," Jemmah Khalil said. Hospital sources at the Moroccan city of Tetuan reportedly said two bodies taken there had wounds from rubber bullets - standard kit used by Spanish border guards. But Spanish reports said the bullets came from the Moroccan side.
Some 480 Spanish troops stationed in Ceuta and Melilla were mobilised yesterday to guard the frontiers, following complaints from civil guards that they needed reinforcements. The troops' role was only "a deterrent", officials said.
Staff at Ceuta's overcrowded short-stay centre for immigrants took in 100 yesterday, bringing numbers to 500. "We've done everything we can for them, to offer food, warmth, showers. We don't care how they got here, we want to make them welcome. So many people are ready to give their lives to cross this frontier. We can't solve that problem, only offer help and our years of experience," a spokesman for the centre said.
Yesterday's avalanche followed two nights of similar assaults upon the fences sealing off Melilla, further to the east. Twin fences, six miles long, surround the enclave with a strip of no-man's land between them. The barriers are topped with blades and guarded on the Spanish side.
Guardsmen in riot gear tried to repel up to 1,000 migrants who besieged Melilla on Tuesday and Wednesday. Around 300 got in.
Spain and Morocco are on friendly terms and plan joint efforts to stem the influx. Spain has started to raise Melilla's fence to 20ft. But the desperation and sheer force of numbers of those fighting to get into Europe mounts steadily.
Building higher fences, one local aid worker said recently, "was like putting a gate in the sea".