Around 2,000 migrants tried to storm the border fence around the Spanish territory of Melilla in North Africa on Friday, in a violent-two hour skirmish with officers during which 18 migrants were killed and scores more from both sides were injured.
It marks the biggest attempt to breach the European Union's southernmost land border since Spain and Morocco ended a diplomatic crisis in March.
According to authorities in Melilla, around 500 migrants reached the border fence, which at one point was broken open with a bolt cutter, with some 130 people managing to reach Spanish territory.
Sources from Spain’s Guardia Civil border force in Melilla described the breach as “perfectly organised and violent”.
It started at around 8.30am on Friday, with hundreds of people trying to jump over the roof of a border checkpoint after cutting through fencing.
Fifty-seven migrants were injured attempting to cross the border, a double fence standing at six metres tall, while 44 Guardia Civil officers were also hurt.
AMDH Nador, a Moroccan human rights watchdog, said the incursion came a day after Moroccan security personnel had tried to clear nearby camps, part of an “intense crackdown” since Spanish and Moroccan forces resumed joint patrols and reinforced security measures in the area around the enclave.
Moroccan gendarmes reportedly prevented around 1,500 migrants from reaching the border by confronting the crowd with anti-riot equipment.
Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish prime minister, expressed “gratitude to the cooperation shown by the Kingdom of Morocco, which demonstrates the need to maintain the best of relations with the country”.
Friday’s incident was the largest of its kind since March, when 900 migrants managed to enter Spanish territory from Morocco. Moroccan security forces had reined back their efforts at the border amid a diplomatic spat over the Western Sahara.
Days later, Spain made a notable shift on its policy regarding the disputed territory, recognising Morocco’s proposal of making it a semi-autonomous region within the Moroccan kingdom as “the most realistic and credible” solution to the historical dispute.
There have been numerous such incidents at the border of Melilla and Ceuta, autonomous Spanish cities that border Morocco. On one day in May 2021 some 8,000 people, including migrants and Moroccan citizens, took advantage of an absence of Moroccan security forces to enter Ceuta in the midst of the diplomatic crisis between Madrid and Rabat.
Mr Sánchez, who visited Morocco’s King Mohammed VI in April, said it was important to recognise that “Morocco also suffers from migratory pressure, particularly from the unstable Sahel region”.
“We reject any violent assault on the Melilla fence, as we have seen today, by mafias that traffic in human beings,” Mr Sánchez added.
As host of the Nato summit to be held next week, Spain’s government has said that it wants the alliance to address the security threats stemming from North Africa and the Sahel.
José Manuel Albares, the Spanish foreign minister, this week cited “the use of illegal immigration as a weapon and energy blackmail” as well as jihadi terrorism in the Sahel as some of the threats that Europe faced from its southern flank.
Algeria, which backs the Polisario Front force fighting Morocco for an independent Western Sahara, reacted to Madrid’s new stance on the territorial conflict by breaking economic relations with Spain, although it has stopped short of cutting the supply of natural gas through a pipeline that joins the two countries.