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French Version

Spain's premier ignores Moroccan criticism, visits disputed city

Rabat blasts zapatero's trip to enclave as 'inappropriate'

Spain's prime minister ignored Moroccan criticism Wednesday as he pressed ahead with a visit to a second disputed enclave in North Africa.

Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who called on Wednesday for closer relations between cultures and religions, spent Tuesday in the twin enclave of Melilla.

The visits are sensitive because Morocco claims both cities. The last time a Spanish prime minister made a similar visit was in 1980. Even King Juan Carlos has avoided traveling there.

In a speech in Ceuta, a centuries-old Spanish city on Morocco's northern coast, Zapatero said he did not want the people of Ceuta to feel like second-class Spanish citizens. Both Ceuta and Melilla have a substantial Muslim minority "I've come here to Ceuta because I know the people of Ceuta wanted me to, and because it's a duty of the government to give all Spaniards the same treatment," Zapatero said, who in Melilla had highlighted his commitment to immigrants' human rights.

Both enclaves were the scene last year of desperate attempts by thousands of mainly sub-Saharan African immigrants to reach Spanish territory and 14 died, at least four shot by Moroccan border guards as they tried to scale razor-wire fencing.

A Moroccan government spokesman said that Zapatero's trip was "inopportune." Spokesman Nabil Benabdullah stressed that "Rabat claims both [enclaves] as Moroccan, and as the positions are known we can only deplore this visit."

In Ceuta, Zapatero did not address the Moroccan complaint publicly. And, as he did in Melilla, he avoided stating publicly that Ceuta is part of Spain.

He praised the city's mix of Christian and Muslim culture.

"In Ceuta there are different cultures and religions living together. All of them have the same rights and have to make the show the same commitment to coexistence," he said.

Spanish government sources deflected the criticism by dubbing bilateral relations, already marred by the immigration issue, as "excellent."

For Morocco, the enclaves are an anachronism from the time when northern Morocco was a Spanish protectorate between 1912 and 1956.

The conservative newspaper El Mundo criticized Zapatero for not responding to the Moroccan criticism and not stating outright during his visit to Melilla that the city is Spanish.

In an editorial, it said he may have kept quiet to avoid angering Morocco, but said it was wrong for him to visit such sensitive places and just talk about building hospitals and schools and not assert Spain's control over the cities.

"Zapatero must respond to the provocation from Morocco," the paper said.

During his visit to Ceuta, Socialist Zapatero held talks with local government leader Juan Vivas of the right-wing opposition Popular Party, which lamented Wednesday that Zapatero had not repeated his comments about the enclaves belonging to Spain.

Spanish media reported that Vivas had called for more public investment in Ceuta and for measures to reduce high joblessness to enable local people to enjoy "a level of wellbeing on a par with that of other Spaniards."

According to government sources, Zapatero was to announce four million euros ($4.8 million) of funding for two reception centers, one in either enclave, for Moroccan minors.

The Spanish prime minister was to end his visit to an immigrant reception center, having been mobbed by cheering immigrants housed at a similar center in Melilla on Wednesday.

Last year's immigration crisis which highlighted the gulf separating EU riches from impoverished Africa, prompted EU states to earmark 800 million euros in aid through to 2013.

Madrid,02 06 2006
The Daily Star
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