More than 200 migrants seeking to enter Europe have stormed over a fence into Spain’s north African territory Melilla, causing a fracas that left 35 injured in one of the biggest such crossings in years, officials and rights groups said.
Some 300 people rushed at dawn on Friday to cross the triple-layer fence into the city, which has one of Europe’s only two land borders with Africa, and 214 made it across, Spanish authorities said, according to the AFP news agency.
“They were singing songs of joy through various parts of the city,” the Spanish government authority in Melilla said in a statement.
The assault began around 6am after migrants assembled on the Moroccan side of the border, it said.
“The crossing was marked by the throwing of all kinds of objects – stones, sticks and bottles – at police,” and two Spanish officers were lightly injured, the statement said.
Unusually, a young woman was among those who made it to Melilla, where most migrants who manage the crossing are men.
On the Moroccan side, among those who failed to reach Melilla, 35 were taken to hospital in nearby Nador, said Hicham Rachidi, secretary general of the Moroccan migrant support group GADEM.
Two were in critical condition after being beaten by the Moroccan security forces, including one who was operated on after sustaining severe head injuries, Rachidi told AFP.
Seven of the other injured sustained fractures, with the rest suffering cuts from the barbed wire on top of the fence, said Adil Akid from the Moroccan Association of Human Rights.
It was the latest in a series of coordinated attempts by African migrants on the border of Melilla, which along with another Spanish territory to the west, Ceuta, has the European Union’s only land borders with Africa.
The two coastal cities sit across the Strait of Gibraltar from mainland Spain, surrounded by Moroccan territory, and are seen as stepping stones for African migrants desperate to reach Europe.
“Hundreds and hundreds more immigrants are going to continue to arrive because police don’t have enough officers to fend off this invasion of Spanish territory,” said Melilla’s councillor for development, youth and sports, Miguel Marin.
At least 14 migrants drowned in Moroccan waters on February 6 while trying to enter Ceuta by sea after several hundred tried to storm the land border.
In that incident, Spanish security forces were accused by human rights groups and witnesses of firing rubber bullets at the immigrants, sparking controversy in Spain.
This week, Spain’s interior ministry said it had banned border guards from firing rubber bullets to stop migrants crossing the fence into its north African territories.