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Spain, Morocco Exchange Demands Over Disputed Mediterranean Island - 2002-07-18

Spain has offered to withdraw its troops from an uninhabited Mediterranean island it occupied Wednesday in a dispute with Morocco, but only if Morocco pledges not to send its own soldiers back to the island. Morocco, in turn, is demanding an unconditional Spanish withdrawal from the rocky islet before the two countries can begin talks.

Spain and Morocco are no closer to a solution of their dispute over the island that Spain calls Perejil and Morocco calls Leila, despite international pressure for them to resolve the row.

One week ago, Moroccan troops set up what Morocco called an observation post on the island to allegedly clamp down on illegal immigration and drug trafficking.

On Wednesday, Spain recaptured the island in a move Morocco said was tantamount to a declaration of war. Spain said it was a legitimate act of self-defense.

Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio offered Thursday to pull her country's troops off the island, if Morocco promises that its forces will not reoccupy it. Ms. Palacio said Spain has no desire to stay on the island. She said it only wants to go back to the status quo that prevailed before the Moroccan occupation. But for that to happen, she added, Spain needs guarantees that the Moroccans will not go back once Spain leaves.

The foreign minister said Spanish troops will stay on the island until Morocco makes a commitment not to return. But she said she hopes that, in the future, the two countries can cooperate on the island. She said one way the two countries could work together is to set up shifts on the island, or even conduct joint patrols.

Morocco is not buying such arguments. A letter from the Moroccan government to the United Nations Security Council says there can be no cooperation, or even talks about cooperation, until Spain withdraws its troops.

At the heart of the dispute is Madrid's insistence that Spain and Morocco have had a longstanding agreement that neither should occupy the island. Morocco says there is no such agreement.

Spain has ruled out any third-party mediation in its dispute with Morocco, saying the matter should be handled bilaterally.