Spain prosecutor opens probe into Melilla migrant deaths

Spanish public prosecutors said Tuesday they have opened an investigation into the deaths of at least 23 migrants during a mass attempt to cross into Spain’s Melilla enclave.

FILE PHOTO: Riot police officers cordon off the area after migrants arrive on Spanish soil and crossing the fences separating the Spanish enclave of Melilla from Morocco in Melilla, Spain. /AP

The announcement came a few hours before the United Nations denounced what it called “excessive force” by authorities on the border between Morocco and Spain and demanded an investigation into the migrants’ deaths.

The tragedy occurred at dawn on Friday when around 2,000 migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, tried to break through the fence from Morocco into the tiny Spanish enclave.

Moroccan authorities said some 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.

They said 140 Moroccan police were wounded.

Footage uploaded to social media shows how a large number of migrants approached a section of the fence and began scaling it. Some of the migrants hurled rocks at Moroccan anti-riot police trying to stop them. At one point, the fence collapses, sending many of the migrants to the ground from a height of several meters.

The death toll is by far the worst recorded in years of attempts by migrants to cross into Melilla, one of Spain’s two North African enclaves which have the European Union’s only land borders with Africa, making them a magnet for migrants desperate to escape grinding poverty and hunger.

In a statement, the Spanish prosecutor’s office said the decision was made by Attorney General Dolores Delgado in order “to clarify what happened at the Melilla border”, citing the “seriousness and gravity” of the incident and its impact on the individuals’ fundamental and human rights.

“We saw the use of excessive force by the authorities, which needs to be investigated because it is unacceptable,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, told reporters in New York.

The African Union has also called for an “immediate investigation,” with AU Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat expressing “deep shock and concern at the violent and degrading treatment of African migrants attempting to cross an international border from Morocco into Spain”.

(With input from AFP, AP)