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Spain Takes Back Disputed Perejil Island - 2002-07-17

Spain has used military force to re-stake its claim to a tiny disputed island that was occupied last week by a small unit of Moroccan troops. Spain says it was forced to act because Morocco's response to requests to withdraw from the island was unsatisfactory.

In a lightning operation at daybreak, elite Spanish troops stormed the island, known as Perejil in Spain and Leila in Morocco and captured the six Moroccan soldiers who were guarding it.

Spanish officials say the six captured Moroccans were taken to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on Morocco's north coast, where they were seen by a doctor and given breakfast. Then they were taken to the Moroccan border and handed over to Moroccan officials.

The barren, rocky, uninhabited island, which is the size of several football fields, lies only 200 meters off the Moroccan coast. It was occupied last Thursday by a dozen Moroccan troops who put up the Moroccan flag. Morocco said at the time that its forces set up an observation post there to clamp down on drug trafficking and illegal immigration, two issues that have caused tensions between Spain and Morocco.

Spain says sovereignty over the island is disputed and that both countries agreed 40 years ago not to occupy it. Morocco says the island's status was not covered by a 1956 accord that ended French and Spanish protectorates in Morocco.

Under that pact, Spain kept Ceuta and Melilla, another enclave on the Moroccan coast, both of which it has governed for centuries. But Morocco claims the island as well as several others off its coast that Spain nominally controls.

Earlier, Spain recalled its ambassador to Morocco. A Spanish diplomat in Brussels says his country hoped it could get Morocco to remove its troops from the island through diplomatic means. But he says Morocco dismissed calls from both Madrid and the European Union to withdraw its forces.