By RAPHAEL MINDER
Published: August 23, 2010
MADRID — Spain claimed two separate diplomatic victories in Africa on Monday with the release of two hostages held in Mauritania and an agreement with Morocco to strengthen police cooperation following a recent commercial blockade of Melilla, a Spanish enclave in Morocco.
The two aid workers had been abducted by the North African branch of Al Qaeda while driving back to Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, in late November. They were due to fly back to Barcelona on Monday night on a Spanish military aircraft after initially making their way to Burkina Faso, which helped negotiate their release.
Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero said the release of the two men, Albert Vilalta and Roque Pacual, after almost nine months in captivity, was “a day of joy for all Spaniards.”
A third Spanish aid worker was released by the terrorists in March. A French hostage, however, was killed by Al Qaeda terrorists operating in Africa last month following a raid by French and Mauritanian forces to try to free him.
Separately, Spain and Morocco agreed Monday to strengthen their security and police cooperation to handle issues ranging from immigration to drug trafficking following recent tensions over Spanish police’s management of Melilla.
After meeting with his Moroccan counterpart in Rabat, as well as King Mohamed VI, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the Spanish interior minister, said, “What we have managed to get out of these incidents is an agreement to strengthen our cooperation.” He added: “There have been incidents, but they belong to the past.”
The meeting followed a commercial blockade of Melilla by Moroccan protesters this month after a dispute over alleged violence and racism on the part of the Spanish police. The protesters on two separate occasions prevented trucks carrying food from entering Melilla, which has a population of about 70,000 and has long been claimed by Morocco.
The Spanish government had refused to describe the blockade as a political crisis between the two countries. But following the minister’s visit both Miguel Ángel Moratinos, the Spanish foreign minister, and King Juan Carlos have scheduled visits to Morocco soon to help smooth the relationship.
After the Melilla blockade, the government also found itself embroiled in a domestic political dispute, accused at home by Spain’s main center-right opposition Popular Party of failing to defend adequately the Spanish presence in North Africa. In response, the government denounced as an act of disloyalty an unannounced visit this month to Melilla by José María Aznar, the former center-right prime minister.
The release of the two Spanish hostages, meanwhile, followed an agreement by Mauritania to extradite to Mali a man convicted by a Mauritanian court in July for his role in the kidnapping of the Spaniards. The Malian citizen, known as Omar the Saharan, was allegedly the mastermind of the abduction and had received a 12-year prison sentence.
Mr. Zapatero thanked Spanish diplomatic and secret services for helping secure the release. But he provided no further insight on Monday on the link between the Malian extradition and the release of the hostages.