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Spain, Morocco reopen land border crossings as ties improve

Spain, Morocco reopen land border crossings as ties improve

MADRID (AP) — The land borders between Spain and Morocco at Ceuta and Melilla, Spain’s North African enclave cities, have begun to reopen after being closed for just over two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic and later a diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

Crowds gathered at the first border to reopen — Tarajal, in Ceuta, and Beni Enzar in Melilla — to witness the reopening at midnight Monday.

Crossings have been initially limited to residents of Europe’s passport-free Schengen area and their family members, and will be expanded to cross-border workers by the end of the month.

Melilla regional President Eduardo de Castro told Spanish state radio RNE that traffic in the first hours had gone as planned.

“Things are completely normal, there are no massive crowds,” he said, adding that he expected it will take “several months” for customs controls to be re-established.

The local economies on both sides of the fences that slice off the tiny Spanish enclaves from Morocco in northwest Africa depend heavily on the crossings of goods and workers.

Madrid and Rabat are pushing to mend relations after a year-long spat centered on the disputed region of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony annexed by Morocco in 1976.

The reopening of land borders Tuesday came exactly a year after Morocco loosened its controls around Ceuta, allowing thousands of migrants to cross into Spain. That move was widely seen as retaliation for Spain’s decision to allow the leader of Western Sahara’s pro-independence movement to be treated for COVID-19 at a Spanish hospital.

Tensions began to thaw earlier this year after Spain backed Morocco’s plan to grant more autonomy to Western Sahara, which has angered many in the former colony who want full independence.

Ferry traffic between the two countries resumed several weeks ago.