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Morocco Demands Spain Withdraw From Disputed Island - 2002-07-17

Morocco has demanded Spain's withdrawal from a tiny disputed island in the Mediterranean that Moroccan soldiers occupied last week and Spanish forces re-captured early Wednesday. Morocco is calling the Spanish action "unjustified aggression" while Spain has described it as an act of legitimate self-defense.

The island is called Perejil by Spaniards and Leila by Moroccans. It lies only 200 meters from the Moroccan coast. It is rocky and barren and had been uninhabited in recent times until last week.

Last Thursday, about a dozen Moroccan troops set up what Morocco called an observation post on the island and raised their country's flag. Their aim, Morocco said, was to clamp down on drug trafficking and illegal immigration. Spain has often accused Morocco of being the source of drugs and illegal immigrants entering its territory.

Spain called on Morocco to withdraw its troops and was joined in its appeal by the European Union. But Morocco dismissed those calls and said its troops would stay on the island permanently.

On Wednesday, elite Spanish forces moved onto the island at daybreak and, without firing a shot, captured six Moroccan soldiers and raised the Spanish flag. The Moroccan soldiers were later handed over to Moroccan authorities.

There had been no hint that Spain was prepared to solve the impasse militarily. But Defense Minister Federico Trillo said his government acted because Morocco violated an agreement to leave the island uninhabited.

Morocco says no such agreement exists and calls the island an integral part of its own territory.

Spanish Foreign Minister Ana de Palacio said Spain intends to remove its troops as soon as possible, but she insisted on a return to the status quo before Morocco's occupation, when neither side had actively pressed a claim to the island.

She said Spain has no interest in keeping a military presence on Perejil but wishes to return to the situation before July 11 when Morocco occupied the island.

But Morocco has demanded that Madrid pull its troops off the island immediately and unconditionally.

The European Union, of which Spain is a member, has offered to help the two countries renew their dialogue. Although the EU had called for Morocco to withdraw from the island, it pointedly did not endorse Spain's military action.

NATO, to which Spain also belongs, said it is pleased that the status quo ante has been restored.