Morocco recalls Spanish ambassador in enclave spat

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RABAT, Nov 2 (Reuters) Morocco recalled its ambassador to Spain on Friday to show its irritation at plans by King Juan Carlos to visit Spain's two north African enclaves, which Morocco claims as its own.

Spain said the king would make his first visit as head of state to the small, densely populated cities of Ceuta and Melilla on Morocco's Mediterranean coast next Monday and Tuesday, accompanied by Queen Sofia.

High-level Spanish trips to Ceuta and Melilla are rare and a visit by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in 2006, the first by a Spanish head of government since 1981, raised hackles in Morocco.

After Spain's announcement, ''it has been decided on the high instruction of his majesty King Mohammed VI ... the recall for consultation of Mr. Omar Azziman, his Majesty's ambassador in Spain for an indeterminate period,'' Moroccan state news agency MAP said.

Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega defended the royal visit, saying it was in response to requests by residents. She noted that Morocco and Spain were allies and friends.

''Relations with the kingdom of Morocco are extraordinarily good ... based on sincere affection and mutual respect,'' she told a weekly government news briefing.

Spanish-Moroccan relations have improved since Zapatero came to power and aligned his foreign policy closer to that of staunch Moroccan ally France.

A low point was reached in 2002 under his predecessor Jose Maria Aznar, when Morocco sent troops to the tiny disputed island of Perejil and Spain sent special forces to oust them.

''PROFOUND REGRET'' Moroccan Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi voiced surprise and ''profound regret'' at the royal visit, which he first heard about in the Spanish press, MAP said.

''The government ... recalls that these two towns are an integral part of the territory of the Kingdom of Morocco and their return to the mother nation will come from direct negotiations between the Spanish neighbour,'' MAP quoted El Fassi's office as saying.

El Fassi became prime minister in September after his conservative Istiqlal (Independence) party won the most seats in parliamentary elections.

The party has a nationalist agenda and staunchly defends Morocco's ''territorial integrity'' including its claim over Spain's former colony of Western Sahara and over the two enclaves, which Morocco calls Sebta and Mellilia.

News of the trip has caused excitement in the two cities where roads are expected to close, shops to shut and government offices to open only for two hours.

Children are unlikely to attend school so they can line the route of the Spanish monarch.

Spain took Melilla at the end of the 15th century and took over Ceuta from Portugal in the 17th century.

The enclaves now have a lucrative sideline in contraband consumer goods smuggled into Morocco, while high barbed-wire fences attempt to stop illegal migrants coming the other way.

Ceuta and Melilla have been recognised as autonomous cities since 1995, a status that gives them less power over their own affairs than the autonomous regions of peninsular Spain.

Reuters PBB GC0202

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