Spain Oust Moroccans From Island

By Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, Wednesday 17 July 2002; 4:52 PM

PARIS, July 17—Spanish commandos landed by helicopter before dawn today on a tiny barren island off the Moroccan coast and evicted six Moroccan soldiers who took control of it for their country last week. The surprise assault either ended or seriously escalated a new flare-up of a territorial dispute between Spain and Morocco that dates to the 16th century.

Spanish troops used megaphones to demand that the Moroccans surrender, then detained them for several hours before handing them over to Morocco. There were no injuries and no shots were fired, Spanish officials said. By midday two Spanish flags were seen fluttering over the island, replacing the red and green Moroccan flag that had been hoisted there last week.

Spain's use of military force to end the week-long standoff surprised European diplomats and the Moroccan government in Rabat. After a handful of Moroccan soldiers landed on the normally uninhabited island last Thursday, Spain sent warships to the area but gave repeated given public assurances that it hoped to end the dispute through negotiations.

But today Spanish Defense Minister Federico Trillo defended the assault, which involved 28 Spanish special forces troops and Cougar helicopters. Spain was attacked by force in a very sensitive part of its geography, he said. In military terms, we are talking about a clear act of legitimate defense.

Morocco was equally heated in its response. Foreign Minister Mohammed Benaissa called the Spanish move an act of war. An official statement from the MAP news agency said Morocco will not fail to act in the face of Spain's unjustified aggression. Morocco urges the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Spanish forces, the statement said. The island is an integral part of Moroccan territory.

Largely Muslim Morocco has won support in many quarters of the Muslim world, including the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Conferences. Spain, meanwhile, is supported by the NATO alliance and the 15-nation European Union.

Diplomats were waiting today to see if Morocco's response might go beyond words.

The island is claimed both by Spain, which calls it Isla del Perejil, or Parsley Island, for the wild parsley that grows there, and Morocco, which calls it Leila. It lies about 200 yards off the Moroccan coast and about six miles from Ceuta, one of two enclaves on the Moroccan coast that Spain continued to control after Morocco gained independence in 1956.

Relations between Spain and Morocco have already been strained in recent months, largely because of Spanish contentions that Morocco is not doing enough to stem the flow of illegal immigrants streaming across the Mediterranean into southern Spain. Morocco has its own list of grievances, including Spain's continuous holding of the colonial-era enclaves.

Many diplomats and others believe that Morocco's real intention in seizing the island was to press its sovereignty claim to the enclaves, which Spain first seized in the 16th century to protect its sea trade from Berber pirates on the North African coast. Ceuta, with a population of 75,000 people, and Melilla, with 69,000 inhabitants, are full Spanish cities, ringed by barbed wire and housing Spanish military garrisons.

Morocco wants to force the issue of Ceuta and Melilla onto the agenda, said one diplomat.

Some analysts said that Morocco's timing may be related to talks that Spain and Britain are holding over the fate of another historical colonial anachronism that lies just a few miles away, British-controlled Gibraltar. It has long been an irritant between Madrid and London.

Morocco's government may be trying to make the case that if Spain can negotiate for the return of sovereignty over Gibraltar, which Spain considers Spanish territory illegally seized hundreds of years ago, then Morocco has legitimate claims against Spain lingering from past imperial days.

The Moroccans occupied the island the day before a start of day of nation pride %G–%@ celebration of the wedding of its King Mohammed VI. The government contended that the men on the island would operate an observation post and help in efforts to stem illegal immigration across the Strait of Gibraltar.

The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, has backed Spain but cautiously, reflecting the fact that Morocco is a major trading partner for Europe and aid benefactor and a key country in the battle against illegal immigration.

The commission remains concerned by the developments on the islet of Perejil, the commission president, Romano Prodi, said in a statement. It is now time to return to the status quo ante and to resume dialogue between Spain and Morocco.

The statement added, The European Commission attaches great importance to relations between the European Union and Morocco. We are ready to act to facilitate dialogue.

A European diplomat said later, I don't expect belligerent noises to come out of the European Union for the foreseeable future. He said, The guiding line of the EU is that everybody, including Spain, should try to avoid escalating.

European ambassadors dealing with political issues, known as the Political Committee, met in Brussels today to discuss the issue, and received assurances from Spain that it did not intend to keep its troops in the island. But the EU ambassadors failed to come out with a common statement, sources said, after France, which has close relations with Morocco, refused to sign on, in an indication of how sensitive the dispute is for Europe.

Considering the tone of the remarks between Spanish and Moroccan officials, it might seem surprising that the island itself is so small and for 40 years has been populated only by wild goats.

A Spanish official conceded in an interview, That island has no significance geographically or economically, only symbolically. Spain has not used the word sovereignty in making its claim, only insisting that the status quo should not have been changed by force, as Morocco did when it sent troops there last week.

Europeans governments are now anxiously awaiting Morocco's next move, if any. Morocco scored a point by putting troops on the island, one European diplomat said. Spain scored a point by kicking them off. Now they can start negotiating. But the big if is whether Morocco can refrain from reacting. He predicted, in a worried tone, that it will be impossible for them to concede defeat.