Spanish Royals Visit African Enclaves

The Associated Press
Monday, November 5, 2007; 3:48 PM

MADRID, Spain -- Thousands waving Spain's flag welcomed the king and queen to a Spanish enclave in North Africa, on a trip sparking a diplomatic spat with Morocco.

King Juan Carlos' two-day visit was his first to Ceuta and Melilla in his 32 years as head of state. The two cities on Morocco's northern coast are remnants of Spain's colonial empire.

On Monday, Morocco vowed to get those enclaves back.

Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi said Morocco will work "to recover the two occupied cities and the neighboring islands," the official MAP news agency said.

The kingdom has "inalienable, legitimate" rights to the land, the prime minister told the House of Representatives, and the royals' visit was "inopportune," MAP said.

Hundreds of people demonstrated Sunday in the Moroccan city of Tetuan to reclaim Ceuta and Melilla. Morocco recalled its ambassador from Spain on Friday to protest what it described as a regrettable plan by Spain's monarchs to visit the two cities.

The king made no direct mention of the dispute with Morocco during his speech Monday at Ceuta's City Hall, saying only that during his travels around Spain he had never been to Ceuta as king and had to correct this.

Spanish television broadcast footage of Moroccan protesters waving their country's red flag and perched upon a gate at the border between Ceuta and Morocco. Reports said Moroccans planned protest rallies in Melilla and outside the Spanish Embassy in Rabat, the Moroccan capital.

In Ceuta, the king and Queen Sofia waved from the balcony of a government building to thousands of residents who held Spain's red-and-yellow flag and chanted "Espana" from the town square. The royal couple later took a walk and shook hands with people.

Spain defends its sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla by noting that the cities have been Spanish for more than 400 years, longer than Morocco has been a sovereign state.

Spanish authorities said they were confident that Madrid's good relations with Rabat would help keep the dispute from marring the royals' visit.

"I believe the situation will return to normal very quickly, and relations will continue to be as good as they have been in the last few years," Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba told Cadena SER radio.

He said both countries cooperate strongly on economic and security matters.

Morocco saw things differently. El Fassi, the prime minister, said the land issue represents a "fundamental difference between the two countries" and must be resolved.

Cooperation between Morocco and Spain is essential "to assure stability in the Mediterranean region," the prime minister was quoted as saying by MAP.

Ceuta, with a population of 75,000 people, receives another 30,000 Moroccans daily who cross into the enclave to work and shop. The king and queen were next scheduled to visit Melilla, about 140 miles away on Morocco's coast.

Their visit has come at a particularly sensitive time, as Morocco was preparing to mark on Tuesday its 32nd anniversary of the so-called Green March.

Morocco's King Hassan II, father of the current monarch, had sent hundreds of thousands of Moroccans to march on the Western Sahara in a symbolic gesture of ownership of that territory to the south.

A dispute over the status of the Western Sahara still festers today, with Polisario rebels claiming its independence.

© 2007 The Associated Press