King's visit stirs passions in Spanish enclave

Cheering crowds waved Spanish flags as King Juan Carlos visited Spain’s disputed North African enclave of Ceuta on Monday, but hundreds of Moroccans demonstrated against him just across the border.

With shouts of “Long live the King!” and “Ceuta is Spanish”, thousands of locals roared their approval at Juan Carlos, who was making his first visit since becoming king in 1975 to the territory a short ferry ride across the Straits of Gibraltar.

But Morocco, which claims Ceuta as well as another tiny enclave, Melilla, which Juan Carlos is due to visit on Tuesday, last week recalled its ambassador to Spain for consultation in protest at the king’s trip.

“I would like first to affirm that this visit ... is totally unacceptable, inopportune, hurts the feelings of the whole Moroccan people,” Morocco’s Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi told the country’s Parliament on Monday.

The presidents of Morocco’s lower and upper houses of Parliament, Mustapha Mansouri and Mustapha Oukacha, had earlier handed a joint protest letter to the Spanish ambassador to Rabat, Luis Palans, to express their “deep irritation about this provocative initiative”.

A crowd of several hundred protesters, many high school students bussed in with their teachers, briefly tried to push through the Moroccan side of the fenced-off border but were repelled by Moroccan riot police.

They chanted “Juan Carlos Out” and held up signs in Spanish and Arabic with slogans calling for Spain to hand over the enclaves, which have been under Spanish or Portuguese control for centuries.

In Ceuta’s central Africa Square, there was an ecstatic display of loyalty from the flag-waving crowds.

“I didn’t want to let any more time go by without visiting Ceuta to show you our affection and support, just as we have done in other cities and places of Spain,” said the king, accompanied by his wife, Queen Sofia.

Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said on Friday the trip had been planned in response to requests by Ceuta and Melilla residents for a royal visit.

The head of Ceuta’s regional government, Juan Jesus Vivas, called the royal couple’s visit a “present” to a region where the 75 000 population enjoys a higher living standard than across the border but is uneasy about Moroccan claims.

“Your majesties have crossed the Straits, but you have not left Spain,” Vivas said.

Spanish officials have played down the spat with Morocco, where its former colonial presence has been followed by growing investment. “Relations with Morocco are very good and will continue to be good,” said Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, in an interview with Monday’s Publico newspaper.
Zapatero annoyed Rabat last year when he became the first Spanish head of government to visit Ceuta and Melilla since 1981.

But the visit has sparked renewed speculation about security threats from North Africa in Spanish media, which reported a call by al-Qaeda to hit Spanish interests in the Maghreb. - Reuters

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