A major disaster off the coast.

The bodies of 13 people who Spanish police suspect were Africans trying to get into Europe illegally washed up on Spain's southern coast on Thursday. Two or three of five women among them may have been pregnant, police told reporters on the rocky shore at Tarifa, a popular entry point for thousands of illegal immigrants. A police helicopter on an early morning patrol of the narrow strait separating Spain from Morocco had earlier spotted people in a boat. Police speculated the skipper could have been an immigrant smuggler who then forced his charges into the water a short distance offshore in order to make his getaway. “For the time being there are 13 Moroccan and sub-Saharan Africans...and we do not rule out finding more bodies,” a police spokeswoman said. The bodies were found along a deserted stretch of coast, about three kilometres from the nearest town. According to the Moroccan Workers' and Immigrants' Association in Spain (ATIME), some 4'000 people have died or disappeared since 1997 in the Strait of Gibraltar and in the Atlantic waters between Africa and Spain's Canary Islands. Last year Spanish police intercepted around 18'000 immigrants trying to illegally enter Spain by sea and expelled, deported or refused entry to 44'800 immigrants without papers, according to official statistics released yesterday. The increasing numbers of illegal immigrants landing on Spain's southern shores from its north African neighbour Morocco has been a sore point in diplomatic relations between the two countries. The uneasy ties erupted into crisis in July when Moroccan troops occupied a tiny disputed islet off its northern coast that is claimed by Spain. Spain responded by sending its military to take the small island by force. Spain, a major southern European entry point for Africans fleeing poverty and war, last year beefed up immigration laws, making it more difficult for migrants to get papers in the country which has an immigrant population of 1.3 million out of nearly 41 million in total. Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar put immigration at the top of the agenda during Spain's recent presidency of the European Union, while public opinion in Europe has grown increasingly concerned, leading to anti-immigrant parties in several countries obtaining rising numbers of votes. Last month, New York-based group Human Rights Watch slammed Spain for its treatment of migrants. Whether a migrant was expelled or given residency depended on individual immigration officials, many of whom were unaware of a law concerning the rights of foreigners, it said.