Moroccan protesters suspend blockade of Spanish enclave after halting food deliveries

MELILLA, Spain (AP) — Activists in Morocco who have twice blockaded food shipments into a Spanish enclave in the last week to protest alleged abuses by border police agreed Wednesday to suspend their demonstrations until September, when the holy Islamic month of Ramadan ends, a merchants association said.

The deal means a temporary end to the on-and-off commercial blockade of Melilla, a North African city of 70,000 people which Morocco calls "occupied" territory. The latest protest Wednesday halted shipments of perishable food into Melilla.

But the blockades could resume if the problems that triggered it — alleged brutality and racism by Spanish border police against Moroccans entering Melilla — flare up again, said Yusef Kaddur, president of an association of Muslim merchants in Melilla.

"They have given us a one-month truce," Kaddur said of the protesters.

The activists accepted the merchants' view that the Melilla's citizens should not suffer from a problem that must be addressed by the governments of Spain and Morocco, Kaddur told The Associated Press.

"We are not the ones responsible for what has happened at the border," Kaddur said.

Over the last month, Morocco's government has made repeated accusations against Spanish police who control the dusty frontier crossing between Melilla, but Kaddur said the protests only hurt Melilla and Moroccans who live nearby and depend on the enclave for their livelihoods.

Many in Melilla and Spain suggest that the protesters had at least tacit support from the government of Morocco, which claims both Melilla and another North African Spanish enclave further to the west, Ceuta, because Moroccan police did nothing to stop Wednesday's blockade and another one a week ago.

Overnight Tuesday, all trucks were briefly prevented from crossing into Melilla. On Wednesday, no fish, fruit or vegetables came in as truckers apparently bowed to protesters' demands and did not make deliveries.

Spain and Morocco are key allies, cooperating closely on fighting Islamic terrorism and preventing illegal immigration — but the dispute has led Spain's main opposition party to accuse the ruling Socialist Party of failing to reduce tensions.

Melilla depends on Morocco for shipments of perishable products and construction materials like bricks and gravel. About 35,000 Moroccans cross daily into Melilla to work or shop.

The protesters have also used the border dispute to press Morocco's long-standing claim that Spain should cede control of the two Spanish enclaves. Spain rejects any talk of giving them up.

Morocco has made five complaints over the past month alleging Spanish police mistreatment of Moroccans, and also accused the Spanish coast guard of finding and then abandoning a group of ailing boat migrants off the coast. Spain denies the claim.

The countries' relations had their most serious test in 2002, when a handful of Moroccan soldiers occupied a nearby rocky Spanish island inhabited by goats. Spain's conservative government of then-Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar sent in commandos to eject the Moroccan troops, and it took U.S. involvement to negotiate an end to the dispute.

On Wednesday, Aznar unexpectedly flew to Melilla as his Popular Party, now in opposition, accused the ruling Socialist Party of bungling efforts to reduce tensions and end the Melilla blockades.

Aznar told reporters that the enclave and its residents were victims of "harassment and government neglect."

The Spanish government said Aznar's visit could hurt the delicate situation, as Spain's interior minister prepared to visit the Moroccan capital of Rabat on Monday in an effort to repair relations and discuss issues such as terrorism and immigration.

The government is "working on the problem, and it will be sorted out very soon, despite the Popular Party," Spanish Development Minister Jose Blanco said.

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Associated Press Writer Ciaran Giles contributed to this report from Madrid.