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Spanish PM in Morocco on visit to cement ties

Morocco's Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch (R) receives Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez upon his arrival in Rabat
— Rabat (AFP)

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez kicked off a visit to Morocco on Wednesday, on a trip aimed at mending ties following a deep diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

"The better the relations are between Morocco and Spain, the better it is for Spain, for Morocco, for Europe, for business, and for the citizens of both countries," Sanchez said at an economic forum in Rabat.

He and a dozen ministers are set to meet with top members of the Moroccan government on Thursday.

They are expected to sign some 24 deals including on encouraging Spanish investment in the kingdom and on partnerships in areas from culture and education to desalination and rail transport, Spanish government sources said.

They will also discuss irregular migration and the fight against extremism.

Spain's North African enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta -- which both border Morocco -- have long been magnets for people fleeing violence and poverty across Africa, seeking refuge via the continent's only land frontiers with the European Union.

Sanchez said the sides also aimed to "completely normalise the passage of people and goods at customs and land and sea crossing points".

- 'Positive dynamic' -

Prior to his trip, Sanchez had spoken on the phone with King Mohammed VI who urged him to "consolidate the new stage of relations between Morocco and Spain", according to a statement from the Spanish premier's office.

Sanchez visited Morocco in April last year, drawing a line under a year-long diplomatic crisis that began easing after Madrid reversed decades of neutrality on the Western Sahara conflict to back Morocco's position.

The crisis had begun in 2021 when Madrid allowed Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front which seeks independence for the territory of Western Sahara, to be treated for Covid-19 in a Spanish hospital.

Weeks later, more than 10,000 migrants surged into Spain's tiny Ceuta enclave as Moroccan border forces looked the other way, in an incident seen as seeking to punish Madrid.

In March last year, Madrid announced a "new stage" in relations and said it backed the North African kingdom's plan for the Western Sahara of limited autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty.

King Mohammed has invited Sanchez for a higher profile state visit in future to "reinforce the positive dynamic" in their ties, according to a palace statement.

"Spain is the third-largest investor in Morocco," Sanchez noted on Wednesday.

After resuming cooperation with the kingdom, Spain's interior ministry reported that arrivals of irregular migrants on its territory from Morocco were down by a quarter last year compared with 2021.

Both countries faced criticism from rights groups after at least 23 migrants died during a mass attempt to enter the Melilla enclave in June 2022.

The Spanish-Morocco rapprochement comes as Moroccan politicians and media accuse France, a staunch ally of the kingdom, of "orchestrating" a European Parliament resolution critical of Morocco's treatment of the press.

Morocco has also denied accusations of corruption involving European Parliament members.

Rabat is considered an ally in the fight against extremism.

A Moroccan suspect is being held in connection with a machete attack on two Spanish churches in the southern town of Algeciras in January.