Spain in crisis talks with Morocco over migrant disaster

Hundreds got through, but scores were wounded and at least 11 were killed.

Stung by searing images of desperate migrants left in the barren land on the remote Algerian border, Morocco began at the weekend rounding up those it had earlier abandoned, to deport them to their countries of origin.

Rabat initially denied reports by the medical group Médecins sans Frontières that hundreds, including pregnant women, children and injured people, had been taken to remote desert regions without water or food and left to their fate.

But on Saturday, convoys of Moroccan police and military vehicles were transporting the Africans yet again, to Oujda on Morocco's northern border with Algeria, where Senegalese and Malians were to be flown home.

The fate of Africans from other countries, however, remained unclear, amid reports they were to be trucked to the western Sahara and abandoned yet again, to die of hunger and thirst.

Television images yesterday showed Africans brandishing empty water bottles in the desert as they were bundled into dilapidated buses. Many were handcuffed in pairs, their bandaged wounds still fresh from lacerations caused by efforts to storm the razor-wire frontiers of Spain's Moroccan enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. "We have nothing, and no idea where we're being taken," they said.

Amnesty International and other humanitarian groups yesterday denounced the mass expulsions as illegal. Esteban Beltran, Amnesty's director in Spain, said: "No immigrant can be deported unless he has been identified, with a lawyer present, and his case heard. Collective expulsions are contrary to international law and, if carried out with violence and the prospect of death, could be considered a crime against humanity."

Madrid has suspended the mass expulsions until Rabat guarantees they will be treated humanely.

The crisis goes far beyond relations between Spain and Morocco, and is likely to prompt a review of EU immigration policy. At present Europe's poorer southern countries carry the burden of coping with the massive inflows of impoverished Africans.

An EU technical team visited Ceuta yesterday to study a solution to the problem of human avalan-ches crashing through Spain's, that is Europe's, southern frontier. Immigrant holding centres in both cities are acutely overcrowded, with new arrivals housed in field tents, or in the open.

Faced with increased border security, Africans are expected to seek more perilous and expensive routes to Europe, including mafia-run boats to the Canary Islands.

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