Tangiers – A Spanish ferry docked in Morocco’s Tangiers port on Tuesday for the first time in two years, after a pandemic and a diplomatic crisis had left thousands stranded across the Mediterranean.
“It’s a great day. We’re very happy to come back to the country after two years away,” said passenger Hamid Elkhadri.
Spain and Morocco reopened ferry links days after Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez visited the North African kingdom to draw a line under a year-long diplomatic crisis.
The busy, 14km (nine-mile) route across the Strait of Gibraltar had originally been shut in March 2020 when Morocco closed transport links with Europe over the coronavirus pandemic.
A year later, Morocco became embroiled in a dispute with Spain after Madrid allowed Western Saharan independence leader Brahim Ghali to be treated for Covid-19 at a Spanish hospital.
Rabat, which sees the Western Sahara as an integral part of its territory, upheld the blockade between some of the largest ports on the Mediterranean for over two years.
Weeks after Ghali’s hospitalisation, more than 10 000 migrants surged into Spain’s tiny North African enclave of Ceuta as Moroccan border forces looked the other way, in an incident seen as meant to punish Madrid.
The maritime borders reopened last summer but connections between Tangiers and Spain’s Algeciras and Tarifa ports had remained cut.
We missed our country
On Tuesday, the Tarifa Jet catamaran drew into Tangiers under grey skies, but the rain did not dampen the mood of its 35 passengers, mostly Moroccans, home in time for most of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
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“We missed our country and our families,” said Moroccan passenger Firdaous as she arrived at the northern port city, a short ride from the Spanish coast visible on the horizon.
It was the start of a gradual resumption of passenger services between the Moroccan ports of Tangier Med and Tangier-City and the Spanish ports of Algeciras and Tarifa, announced earlier by the transport ministry.
While passenger and shipping traffic resumed on Tuesday, motorists will have to wait until April 18 to make the trip.
The healing of diplomatic ties comes after Spain ended a decades-long stance of neutrality over the disputed Western Sahara territory and agreed to publicly support Rabat’s autonomy plan for the region.
After Spanish colonial forces withdrew in 1975, Morocco fought a bitter war with the Polisario independence movement before reaching a ceasefire in 1991, on the promise of a referendum on self-determination.
But in November 2020, the Polisario declared the ceasefire null and void after Morocco sent in troops to forcibly reopen a highway running through Western Sahara to neighbouring Mauritania.
Spain’s decision to recognise Morocco’s claims to the territory has infuriated regional rival and major gas exporter Algeria, which has long backed the Polisario.