7 migrants drown trying to reach Spain

Rabat - At least seven migrants, including a woman, drowned on Thursday as they tried to swim to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta from a beach in neighbouring Morocco, Moroccan authorities said.

The victims belonged to a group of around "200 illegal migrants" who made the attempt, municipal authorities in the Moroccan town of Fnideq said, without giving the nationalities of the migrants.

They said 13 of those who headed out to sea had been rescued and taken to hospital and that a search operation was continuing.

Spanish authorities in Ceuta said "around 400 sub-Saharans" had attempted the crossing at around 06:00 GMT, and that Moroccan police had recovered five bodies from the beach.

A local representative of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights said eight people had died.

"This drama shows once again the risks taken by illegal migrants, who put their lives in danger," the authorities in Fnideq said.

Ceuta is the northernmost point on the coast of northwest Africa and lies just 15km across the sea from the Spanish mainland.

Illegal immigrants

Ceuta and Spain's other north African enclave Melilla have the European Union's only land borders with Africa.

They are seen as stepping stones to a better life in Europe for sub-Saharan migrants, who often risk their lives attempting to enter the tiny Spanish enclaves, either by sea or by storming the 6 metre barriers that separate them from Morocco.

On Sunday, the bodies of five presumed migrants thought to have been trying to reach Spain in an inflatable boat, were found in the Nador area of Morocco's northern coast, near Melilla.

According to the Rif Human Rights Association, more than 40 migrants died trying to reach Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco in the past two years.

Many more attempt the perilous journey across the Strait of Gibraltar, often in overloaded makeshift boats.

Morocco estimates that there are around 30 000 illegal immigrants on its soil, most of them from sub-Saharan Africa.

Earlier this year, authorities launched an operation to regularise the situation by giving some of them residency permits.

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