Relations between the two countries go into a tailspin after Spain decides to help the leader of a group that Morocco has designated as terrorist.

Moroccan citizens stand on the rocks in front of Spanish legionnaires at El Tarajal beach in Ceuta, Spain, May 18, 2021.
Moroccan citizens stand on the rocks in front of Spanish legionnaires at El Tarajal beach in Ceuta, Spain, May 18, 2021. (Reuters)

Spain has accused Morocco of "blackmail" for allowing a record 8,000 migrants to reach the Spanish North African enclave of Ceuta, sparking a crisis that saw clashes on the Moroccan side of the border overnight.

Spanish authorities were caught by surprise on Monday when large numbers of mostly young people began swimming or using small inflatable boats to cross the frontier as the Moroccan border forces looked the other way, quickly leaving the tiny territory overwhelmed.

But Madrid moved quickly to return most of the migrants and calm has largely returned the Spanish beach of Tarajal in Ceuta, where soldiers and armoured vehicles have been deployed in large numbers.

The outskirts of the Moroccan border town of Fnideq were deserted on Thursday, also under a heavy security presence.

However the previous night hundreds of Moroccan youths threw stones at Moroccan forces guarding the border, forcing them to retreat, according to an AFP correspondent at the scene.

READ MORE: Why is the rift between Morocco and Spain widening?

Alliance between Spain, Morocco shaken

The leader of an Algeria-backed movement fighting for the independence of Africa's Western Sahara was quietly admitted to a hospital in Spain last month.

The mysterious Covid-19 patient arrived at an airport in northern Spain in a private jet. An ambulance ferried the 71-year-old man on a freeway that passed vineyards of Rioja grapes to a state-of-the-art public hospital in the city of Logrono.

The patient was sent directly to an intensive care bed, registered on April 18 with the identity on his Algerian diplomatic passport: Mohamed Benbatouche.

He turned out to be Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Polisario Front, an Algeria-backed pro-independence movement representing the local Sahrawi people of Africa's Western Sahara. Ghali's presence in Spain under a disguised identity didn't go unnoticed by the government in Morocco, the country that annexed Western Sahara nearly half a century ago.

Rabat, which regards Ghali as a terrorist, protested Spain's decision to grant compassionate assistance to its top enemy. It threatened there would be “consequences.” And they finally came to fruition this week when Morocco let down its guard on the border with Ceuta, a Spanish city perched on the northern African coastline.

The humanitarian crisis has become a flashpoint between the two neighbours. Morocco recalled its ambassador in Madrid. Spain is under fire from human rights groups for pushing back most of the trespassers in bulk, which is illegal under international law.

And in what resembled an assertion of its sovereignty of Ceuta, which many Moroccan nationalists deem a colony of Madrid along with the nearby Spanish city of Melila, Spain deployed soldiers to the border. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez also made a quick trip to the overwhelmed city.

READ MORE: Spain sends 2,700 migrants back to Morocco, deploys military to border

The Western Sahara region stretches along Africa's Atlantic Coast and is home to roughly 600,000 people. Since Morocco annexed the territory in 1975, filling a void left when Spain withdrew as a colonial power, the international community has been divided on its recognition, with most countries backing a long-running UN effort for a negotiated solution.

An announcement by the United States late last year supporting Rabat's claim — in exchange for Morocco normalising diplomatic ties with Israel — undermined those efforts, rallying other countries behind Morocco's proposal to give the territory greater autonomy.

Moroccan intelligence officials knew about Ghali's whereabouts from the moment the Algerian jet carrying Ghali landed in Spain last month, leaking his presence to the media and exposing what had been designed by Spain as a covert “humanitarian” operation.

“What was Spain expecting from Morocco when it hosted an official from a group that is carrying arms against the kingdom?” Morocco’s minister for human rights, Mostapha Ramid, wrote on Facebook on Tuesday.

Spain's foreign minister responded the next day, blaming Morocco for the chaos at the border: “It tears our hearts out to see our neighbours sending children, even babies … (because) they reject a humanitarian gesture on our part," Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya said.

The Spanish Foreign Ministry declined to answer AP's questions on why it agreed to treat Ghali even when other European governments had refused. An official familiar with the decision who requested anonymity because of its sensitive nature said that the request was made directly to Gonzalez Laya by her Algerian counterpart, Sabri Boukadoum.

Before the request was granted, it had caused deep divisions within Sanchez's Cabinet, the official said.

Providing that his recovery goes well, Ghali’s future is now shrouded in uncertainty. With his whereabouts known, a discreet return to Tindouf, Algeria, where Sahrawi refugee camps are located, seems out of the question.

Further complicating matters, Spain’s National Court on Tuesday reopened a genocide probe from 2008 against Ghali and 27 other Polisario members. An investigating judge closed the case last year because the court couldn't locate the defendants.

READ MORE: In pictures: Some 8,000 migrants reach Spain’s Ceuta from Morocco

Gonzalez Laya: Agreement with Ghali was for medical treatment only

Ghali is also expected to give testimony June 1 in the same Madrid-based court for a 2019 lawsuit filed by a Sahrawi activist who claims he was tortured in the refugee camps for his opposition to the Polisario.

On May 10, a police officer visited the Polisario leader to hand him a court summons for the lawsuit. According to the police report seen by The Associated Press, Ghali refused to sign the notice, asking for “several days” to consult with the Algerian Embassy and other advisors.

Gonzalez Laya said that Spain's agreement with Ghali was for medical treatment only, suggesting that the government won't facilitate his immediate departure. “If he has pending matters with Spain's justice, he will have to appear (before the court)," she told Spain's public radio.

Behind the legal cases against Ghali are groups of Sahrawis aligned with Morocco’s position. Asadesh, which stands for the Saharawi Association for Human Rights, accuses 28 Polisario members of killing, torturing, illegally detaining and abducting prisoners and its own Saharawi people, some of whom the group claims were allegedly forced to remain in refugee camps against their will.

Pedro Altamirano is also suing Ghali for allegedly inspiring threats that the Spanish journalist and head of a recently founded platform to support “Sahrawi reunification” received from online netizens.

“The only thing that cannot happen is that by the hand of the devil this man leaves the country without appearing before a judge," said Altamirano, who supports Morocco’s claim on Western Sahara.

READ MORE: Record number of migrants reach Spain's Ceuta enclave in one day

Source: TRTWorld and agencies