Madrid will offer ‘total collaboration’ with the Spanish and Moroccan investigations into the deaths of at least 23 migrants during a mass attempt to enter Spain’s Melilla enclave, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said on Wednesday.
Unconfirmed reports from human rights groups have put the figure for the number of dead at 37. Also read: Calls for investigation after death toll rises to 37 at Melilla border fence.
The remarks by Sánchez came a day after the United Nations denounced authorities on the border between Morocco and Spain for using ‘excessive force’, describing it as ‘unacceptable’.
The tragedy happened at dawn last Friday, when about 2,000 migrants stormed the heavily fortified border between the Moroccan region of Nador and the Spanish enclave of Melilla, one of Spain’s two North African enclaves, together with Ceuta.
In addition to the migrants who lost their lives, 140 police officers were wounded in the ensuing violence, according to Moroccan authorities. In that total, Spanish officials said 49 Guardia Civil officers sustained minor injuries. It was the heaviest toll in years from such attempts to cross the frontier at Melilla.
‘I regret the loss of human life and express my solidarity with the families of the migrants who died,’ Sánchez told Cadena SER radio, pledging his government would work with investigators to understand what happened.
Sánchez stressed that three investigations had been opened, one by Moroccan prosecutors, one by Spain’s public prosecutor and a third by the Spanish rights ombudsman.
‘We have to trust these institutions and I pledge the government’s total collaboration with their efforts to clarify what happened,’ he said.
Last Saturday, Sánchez had condemned what he described as a ‘violent assault’ and an ‘attack on the territorial integrity’ of Spain. ‘If there is anyone responsible for everything that appears to have taken place at that border, it is the mafias that traffic in human beings,’ he said.
Asked about his initial defence of the security forces’ actions, Sánchez said that when he spoke, he was ‘not aware of the reports and images’ of the victims.
‘I also ask that we put ourselves into the shoes of the injured police and security forces, in both Morocco and in Ceuta and Melilla, who have the right to an orderly flow of migrants and not be at the mercy of violent attacks,’ Sánchez said.
Moroccan authorities have said that some of the victims had fallen while trying to scramble over the fence, giving an initial toll of 18 dead, but later raising it to 23 after another five migrants died of their injuries.
Few details about the incident were available, but Spanish media showed footage of people on the ground, some with bloodied hands and torn clothes.
In Morocco, prosecutors are pressing charges against 65 migrants, mostly Sudanese, for trying to storm the border, a defence lawyer in Rabat said.
Spain’s public prosecutor on Tuesday opened its own investigation ‘to clarify what happened’, citing the ‘seriousness and gravity’ of the incident.
Images of the violence provoked an unusually strong response from the United Nations, which hit out at the border authorities.
‘We saw the use of excessive force by the authorities, which needs to be investigated because it is unacceptable,’ said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric on Tuesday.