updated 11/2/2007 11:29:07 PM ET 2007-11-03T03:29:07

Morocco recalled its ambassador from Spain on Friday after what it called a regrettable plan by Spain’s king and queen to visit two Spanish enclaves in North Africa that are claimed by Morocco.

King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia are to make their first official visit to Ceuta and Melilla, Spain’s possessions in North Africa. Both territories are claimed by Morocco and are located on its northern Mediterranean coastline.

Spain insists the cities are as Spanish as Madrid or Barcelona. Morocco calls them “occupied” territory.

The cities, remnants of Spain’s once globe-spanning colonial empire, have been Spanish for more than 400 years, longer than Morocco has been a sovereign state, Spain says.

The two-day royal visit starting Monday, long-sought by residents of the enclaves, will be Juan Carlos’ first trip to Ceuta and Melilla as head of state. He and his wife visited in 1970, before he became king.

Morocco’s Foreign Ministry announced the “indefinite recall for consultation” of Ambassador Omar Azziman “following the official announcement ... of the regrettable visit by his majesty King Juan Carlos on Nov. 5 and 6 to the occupied cities of Ceuta and Melilla,” the official Moroccan news agency MAP said Friday.

Morocco’s claim to Ceuta and Melilla has been a long-standing sore point in bilateral relations, which have become closer since 2004, when Spain’s left-leaning Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero took office, replacing conservative Jose Maria Aznar.

Source of tension
The enclave controversy is one of several sources of tension across the narrow straits that divide Morocco and Spain.

This week, Moroccan government spokesman Khalid Naciri questioned the motivations of a Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzon, who announced the opening of an inquest into suspected atrocities against North African Saharawi people — ostensibly at the hands of Moroccan authorities. Naciri accused Garzon of dabbling in politics.

Spain withdrew from its former colony Western Sahara after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, and Morocco annexed the territory — the Saharawi people’s ancestral homeland. Saharawis have said crimes were committed during and after the Moroccan invasion.

In 2002, during Aznar’s premiership, a handful of Moroccan soldiers briefly occupied the half-square-mile Spanish island of Perejil, near the Moroccan coast.

Spanish troops swiftly dislodged the Moroccans from the rocky island, which Spain has claimed for centuries. Under a U.S.-mediated diplomatic resolution, both sides agreed not to put troops on it again.

Official: 'Time for colonial responses' over
On Thursday, MAP carried comments from Naciri on relations with Spain.

“All Moroccans agree that Ceuta and Melilla are Moroccan and that there is not a single Moroccan who thinks or who would write otherwise,” he was quoted as saying.

Naciri stressed Morocco’s desire for good relations with Spain, but added that “the time for colonial responses is definitely over.”

There are “red lines related to Morocco’s territorial integrity that must not be crossed,” MAP quoted Naciri as saying. “Our Spanish friends should understand.”

He called for a solution to the problem through negotiations.

An official of the Spanish royal palace, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to say why the royal couple had chosen now to make the trip.

The last Spanish monarch to visit Ceuta and Melilla was Juan Carlos grandfather, Alfonso XIII, in 1927.

Spanish leaders tend to stay away from them because of the political sensitivities. A January 2006 visit by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was the first official trip by a Spanish premier since 1980.

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