Spain defends King's visit to N African enclaves

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MADRID, Nov 3 (Reuters) Spain defended a planned visit by King Juan Carlos to Spain's two north African enclaves, which Morocco claims as its own, saying the trip was in response to persistent demands from locals.

Top-level Spanish trips to Ceuta and Melilla are rare and a visit by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in 2006 raised hackles in Morocco.

Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said the trip was in response to requests by residents for a royal visit. She noted 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 yesterday.

Senior Moroccan officials, however, rejected the visit.

''His Majesty's government can only express its strong rejection and total disapproval of this regrettable initiative, whatever the motivation or intentions,'' government spokesman Khalid Naciri told reporters.

The enclaves 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.

King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia will visit the small, densely populated enclaves next Monday and Tuesday, the government said. No other details have been announced.

News of the visit 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.

Schoolchildren are not expected to attend school but will likely line the route of the Spanish monarchs.

Zapatero annoyed Rabat when he became the first Spanish head of government to visit Ceuta and Melilla since 1981. The reaction to the King's visit seems less vehement.

Spanish-Moroccan relations have improved dramatically 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.

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

REUTERS PD PM0900

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