Spain arrests nine in election fraud probe in Melilla enclave

FILE PHOTO: Moroccan soldiers walk on the Moroccan side of a border fence with Spain's north African enclave of Melilla, in this picture taken on the Spanish side of the fence

MADRID (Reuters) - Police have arrested at least nine people in Spain's North African enclave of Melilla over alleged election fraud involving thousands of mail-in ballots for the country's upcoming local and regional elections, authorities said on Tuesday.

Six suspects were detained on Tuesday and three late on Monday as police searched 10 locations, according to Sabrina Moh, the Spanish government's representative in Melilla.

The raids included the headquarters of the Coalition for Melilla (CpM) party - which belongs to the city's three-way ruling coalition - a CpM spokesperson told reporters, adding the search constituted "an attack on democracy".

The group, which split from Spain's Socialist Party in 1995, is led by Mustafa Aberchan, who served as Melilla's mayor-president between 1999 and 2000.

In 2008, Aberchan was convicted for promising jobs in exchange for votes and handed a two-year prison sentence and a 10,880 euro ($11,977) fine.

Spanish government spokesperson Isabel Rodriguez said the police operation proved "the rule of law works" to correct anomalies in the voting process.

Voters in several regions and all municipalities in Spain are set to choose new governments in the May 28 election.

An opinion poll by SyM Consulting released on Monday showed CpM garnering 39.4% of the vote in Melilla, far ahead of Spain's main opposition People's Party.

Last week, authorities said nearly 12,000 voters (21.1% of the electorate) in Melilla had requested mail-in ballots, seven times more than the national average.

This prompted a change to the rules, forcing the enclave's voters to show IDs when depositing their ballots at post offices. In the rest of Spain, postal voting only requires identification when requesting the ballots.

Postal workers in Melilla were also given police escorts after several robberies by unidentified hooded men.

The enclave, which Spain has held since its conquest in 1497, is now an autonomous city of 85,000 about one-fifth the size of Manhattan. It is surrounded by Morocco, whose government claims the territory as its own.

($1 = 0.9084 euros)

(This story has been corrected to clarify that the search was confirmed by a CpM spokesperson, not government's representative, in paragraph 3)

(Reporting by David Latona and Emma Pinedo; editing by Mark Heinrich)