Spanish PM meets West African leaders

Spanish PM meets West African leaders

West African leaders Monday held talks with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero aimed at boosting ties with the European country which has become a key destination for illegal migrants.

Zapatero said Spain placed "great importance on the meeting which marked a historic landmark in our relations."Several leaders, including Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Jose Maria Neves of Cape Verde, were present during the closed door talks, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) said.

At the end of the brief summit, Spain pledged to provide 262 million euros for projects in the 15-nation ECOWAS, an official statement said.

"As an expression of the new dimension of this cooperation, the Spanish government pledged at the summit to provide a total of 262 million euros (363 million dollars) to strengthen regional integration in West Africa," the statement said.

"A substantioal part of the donation, some 240 million euros, will be dedicated to boosting agricultural productivity to be spread over three years," it said.

Fifteen million euros will go towards infrastructure development, specifically to support various ECOWAS initiatives.

The capacity of the ECOWAS Renewable Energy Centre will also be bolstered with seven million euros disbursed over five years to facilitate its operationalisation and enable it attract public-private sector participation, the statement said.

For Spain, faced with thousands of illegal African migrants landing on its shores in recent years, tightening diplomatic ties with west African countries has become a priority.

Most of the migrants originating from West African set off in barely seaworthy vessels and head for Spain's Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean.

Spanish authorities fear many of the Africans who attempt the perilous journey by boat to Spanish soil die of thirst, hunger or exposure, although there is no way of knowing the exact numbers.

Stepped-up surveillance and cooperation with African nations has meant the number of migrants reaching the Canaries dropped to 9,181 last year from to 12,478 in 2007 and 31,678 in 2006, Spain said in January.

Zapatero told the opening session of the Abuja talks, the first Spain-ECOWAS summit, that his country has increased development aid to West Africa by almost tenfold to 1.4 billion euros last year from 150 million euros a few years ago.

Spain and Nigeria will hold their own bilateral talks on Tuesday in Abuja before Zapatero heads to Lome, for the first official visit by a Spanish prime minister to Togo.



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