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Page last updated at 08:59 GMT, Thursday, 8 May 2008 09:59 UK

Morocco denies drowning migrants

Migrants arriving in Tenerife (Archive picture - September 2007)
Thousands of migrants try to enter Europe from Africa every year

Moroccan authorities have denied allegations its soldiers deliberately sank a boat off the port of Al Hoceima carrying African migrants to Spain.

Five survivors quoted in the Spanish paper El Pais said soldiers punctured their inflatable boat and threatened to stab those onboard.

They said at least 29 people drowned, four of them children, on 28 April.

The Moroccans say 10 people were drowned and the soldiers saved some migrants and were thanked afterwards.

The BBC's James Copnall in the capital, Rabat, says the reaction from Morocco is extremely unusual.

The authorities do not generally comment on the frequent drownings of migrants off the Moroccan coast, he says.

Harsh

The incident is said to have taken place off Al Hoceima, a port on Morocco's northern coast.

One of the soldiers jabbed a knife into the rubber and told us, 'Now go to Spain if you want'
Campos

El Pais quoted five survivors, from Nigeria and Mali, who said the soldiers punctured the rubber boat with a knife attached to a pole.

"One of the soldiers jabbed a knife into the rubber and told us, 'Now go to Spain if you want,'" one of survivors, identified as Campos, said.

"We asked them to take us back with them to Morocco because, with the boat in the state it was, it was almost impossible to continue. We begged them to look at our children and babies."

Survivors say a Moroccan officer then punctured the boat again, and it sank almost immediately.

Another Moroccan launch came to help the drowning migrants, according to El Pais.

Our correspondent says it is difficult to establish the truth of the matter.

A human rights activist in the northern town of Oujda, near where many sub-Saharan migrants stay, told the BBC he had heard rumours of an incident like this, but had not been able to confirm the story with the migrants he knew.

One African diplomat based in Morocco told the BBC the Moroccan authorities occasionally treated sub-Saharan migrants harshly, a claim backed up by several Moroccan human rights associations.

Still, an incident of this nature would be extremely unusual, our reporter says.

However, he says, migrants do often drown as they attempt to get to Europe.

According to one Spanish non-governmental organisation, more than 900 migrants died at sea trying to cross to Spain in 2007.




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