RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Morocco and Algeria, North Africa's two most powerful countries and biggest rivals, are accusing each other of mistreating Syrian refugees.
The Algerian ambassador in Rabat was summoned by the Foreign Ministry on Tuesday to complain about what Morocco described as a rise in the expulsion of Syrian refugees into Morocco from Algerian territory.
"Morocco profoundly deplores this inhuman act, more so because it involves women and children in an extremely vulnerable situation," said the ministry statement.
Morocco's Interior Ministry said that between Sunday and Tuesday some 77 Syrians, including 18 women and 43 children had been expelled. These statements follow up on similar accusations in Moroccan media over the past week.
The spokesman for Algeria's Foreign Ministry, Amar Belani, said Thursday that the stories of expulsions were complete lies by the Moroccan "pseudo-media that specializes in nauseating bubbling of the anti-Algerian media swamp."
Algerian security forces along the border told the Algerian state news agency on Monday that in fact it was the Moroccans who were expelling Syrians into Algeria.
"The gendarmes refused access to the national territory to Syrian refugees that the Moroccan authorities wanted to expel to Algeria," said Col. Mohammed Boualleg of the border police. "It was after this refusal that the Moroccan authorities called on their media to wrongly accuse the Algerians of expelling Syrians."
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in Syria in 2011, at least 2.4 million people have fled Syria, mostly to neighboring countries, according the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. But Morocco is a major jumping off point for immigrants, usually from sub-Saharan Africa, seeking entry into Europe.
In the past, when Morocco has caught Africans who entered from Algeria hoping to cross into Europe, it expelled them into the deserts along the border with Algeria.
According to rights activists in Oujda, Morocco's far eastern city near the Algerian border, most of the Syrian refugees cross the border voluntarily seeking to join relatives already in the country.
"I can't say what's going on along the entire Moroccan-Algerian border, but this is what I have found from the testimonies I have gathered without being able to confirm or deny that Algerians are expelling Syrians," said Mohammed Kerzazi, a member of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights in Oujda.
"It's above all a humanitarian drama because Morocco does not give them refugee status and there are more and more of them in Oujda since June 2013," he added, estimating they were in the hundreds.
Algeria and Morocco are regional rivals with a closed border between them. Algeria also supports an independence movement in the Western Sahara region annexed by Morocco.
Associated Press reporters Smail Bellaoualli in Rabat, Morocco and Karim Kebir in Algiers, Algeria contributed to this report.