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People climb a fence in the area at the border of Morocco and Spain, outside the Spanish enclave of Ceuta on May 18.Mosa'ab Elshamy/The Associated Press

Spain deployed its military to the Moroccan border Tuesday and expelled nearly half of the thousands of migrants who jumped fences or swam onto European soil over two days after Rabat loosened border controls amid a deepening diplomatic spat.

Overwhelmed soldiers separated the adults from the young and carried children in their arms while Red Cross workers helped an endless trickle of migrants who were emerging from the water shivering and exhausted. One unconscious woman laid on the sand before she was carried away on a stretcher.

The sudden influx of migrants has fuelled the diplomatic spat between Rabat and Madrid over the disputed Western Sahara region and created a humanitarian crisis for Ceuta, the Spanish city of 85,000 in North Africa on the Mediterranean Sea, separated from Morocco by a double-wide, 10-metre fence.

Migrants wait to cross into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, near the border of Morocco and Spain.Bernat Armangue/The Associated Press

Amina Farkani, a 31-year-old Moroccan woman who commuted to jobs in Ceuta for 18 years until foreign workers were banned from entering when coronavirus outbreaks began to surge last year, said she saw an opportunity to go back to work when she heard that police were not controlling the border.

“They let people pass and stand there without speaking,” Ms. Farkani told the Associated Press. “People just pass and pass and pass.”

Ms. Farkani was among the thousands of migrants who were sent back to Morocco. AP reporters saw Spanish military personnel and police officers ushering both adults and children through a gate in the border fence. Some tried to resist and were pushed and chased by soldiers who used batons to hasten them.

Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska denied that unaccompanied migrants under 18, who are allowed to remain legally under the tutelage of Spanish authorities, were being deported.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez cancelled a trip to Paris, where he was to attend a summit on international aid to Africa, and flew by helicopter to Ceuta. While calling Morocco a “friend of Spain,” Mr. Sanchez also urged authorities to “respect the shared border.”

A senior Moroccan Foreign Ministry official said the government had recalled its ambassador to Spain for consultations. The official wasn’t authorized to be identified by name in media reports.

By Tuesday afternoon, nearly 8,000 sea-soaked people had crossed the border into the city since early Monday, the Spanish government said, including some 2,000 thought to be teenagers. The number getting in slowed after Spain deployed additional police officers and soldiers, but the arrivals didn’t stop even when anti-riot police on the Moroccan side dispersed crowds of people hoping to cross over.

Migrants avoid the Moroccan police as they try to reach the border between Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Ceuta.FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images

At least 4,000 were returned to Morocco, according to Spain’s Interior Ministry. Morocco and Spain signed an agreement three decades ago to expel all those who swim across the border.

Yet many arriving Tuesday were sub-Saharan Africans who often migrate to flee poverty or violence at home. Spain has agreements to return some of those migrants to their native countries, but not all of them.

One young man drowned and dozens were treated for hypothermia or small injuries, the Red Cross in Ceuta said, adding that it was performing coronavirus tests on the new arrivals. The adults were being transferred to Ceuta’s main soccer stadium, while those thought to be minors were sent to warehouses run by charity groups.

Neither the government in Rabat nor local officials have commented about the mass influx or responded to queries by the Associated Press.

“It’s such a strong invasion that we are not able to calculate the number of people that have entered,” said Juan Jesus Vivas, the president of Ceuta, an autonomous city of about 20 square kilometres.

Spanish Army and Guardia Civil officers take positions next to the border of Morocco and Spain, at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta.Javier Fergo/The Associated Press

People mainly from Morocco stand on the shore as Spanish Army cordon off the area at the border of Morocco and Spain.Javier Fergo/The Associated Press

A man is held by soldiers of the Spanish Army at the border.Javier Fergo/The Associated Press

“The army is at the border in a deterrent role, but there are great quantities of people on the Moroccan side waiting to enter,” he told Cadena SER radio.

Four Spanish armoured vehicles parked Tuesday at Tarajal beach in Ceuta, where the border fence leads to a short breakwater. Some people also rushed up the hills surrounding the city and jumped over the fences.

In a video shared by a Spanish police union urging authorities to send in reinforcements, anti-riot officers behind the border fence were using shields to protect themselves from stones being thrown by people in Morocco.

Morocco’s loosened border watch came after Spain decided to grant entry for medical treatment to the chief of a militant group that fights Morocco for the independence of Western Sahara. Morocco annexed the sprawling region on the west coast of Africa in 1975.

Morocco’s Foreign Ministry has said Madrid’s move to assist Brahim Ghali, head of the Polisario Front, was “inconsistent with the spirit of partnership and good neighbourliness” and vowed there would be “consequences.”

The Spanish government officially rejects the notion that Morocco is punishing Spain for a humanitarian move. Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya summoned Morocco’s ambassador, however, to express the government’s “disgust” and to communicate that Spain rejected “the massive entry of Moroccan immigrants.” Moroccan Ambassador Karima Benyaich was later recalled by Rabat.

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