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African migrants land on tiny Spanish rock

More than 80 African would-be immigrants have landed on a tiny rocky outcrop belonging to Spain. Spanish authorities fear that the island, just a stone's throw from the Moroccan coast, could become a new route to Europe.

Press reports said a group of 68 illegal immigrants arrived on Sunday on the tiny, uninhabited island that, despite being owned by Spain, lies just 30 meters (100 feet) from the Morocco coastline at low tide.

The group was believed to have included three children who, according to Spanish public television channel TVE, had swum to the Isla Tierra, part of the Alhucemas Islands archipelago.

Another 19 people, including three minors and three pregnant women, were reported to have reached the island by boat earlier, on Wednesday. The nationalities of the migrants were not apparent.

Spanish officials were negotiating with their Moroccan counterparts on what to do with the migrants, the online edition of Spanish daily newspaper El Mundo said. However, the Spanish military took the minors and the pregnant women who were among the early arrivals to the relatively close Spanish exclave of Melilla.

Fears of opening a new door

It is believed to be the first time migrants have tried to enter Spain through the archipelago. Madrid is concerned that transferring the immigrants to mainland Spain, or even Melilla, might encourage more people to try to enter the country that way.

"We are before a very delicate situation, in which everyone must act with total responsibility, and when I say everyone I mean Spain, Morocco and the European Union," Spain's central government delegate in Melilla, Abdelmalik El Barkani, said after the first of the migrants arrived.

The islands are one of several Spanish possessions along the Moroccan coast, which include the city exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla as well as islands to which Morocco also has a territorial claim.

African immigrants from a number of countries more normally reach Spanish territory by heading for the more southerly Canary Islands, although some also try to enter directly via Ceuta and Melilla.

rc /tj (AFP, dpa, dapd)