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Moroccan Foreign Minister Speaks on Conflict with Spain in Paris - 2002-07-19

Morocco's Foreign Minister, Mohammed Benaissa, appeared to backtrack Friday on reported assurances Morocco would not re-occupy a small island off North Africa that has sparked a disagreement between Rabat and Spain. Mr. Benaissa spoke to reporters about the dispute in Paris and said his remarks on Spanish radio that Rabat would not reoccupy a disputed island were taken out of context.

The island, known as Perejil in Spain and Leila in Morocco, is claimed by both countries. It is also tiny and inhabited only by wild goats, although Rabat claims drug runners and other delinquents have sought refuge there.

During a press conference Friday, Mr. Benaissa reiterated claims the island was part of Morocco.

The foreign minister said the island was home, and therefore Rabat could do what it wanted on the territory. But he also said Morocco was committed to resolving the stand-off peacefully.

The dispute over the island flared up last week, when half a dozen Moroccan security forces occupied the island. Early Wednesday, Spanish military arrived, and tossed out the Moroccans.

Mr. Benaissa's remarks in Paris came during a trip here to explain Rabat's position to its European counterparts. The island dispute is one of many between Morocco and Spain. Others touch on fishing and oil rights, and the status of the Western Sahara. While Mr. Benaissa praised French mediation offers, he criticized the European Union for backing Spain in the dispute.

The Moroccan envoy said a deal had almost been struck with his Spanish counterpart to resolve the island issue, just moments before Spanish forces arrived on the island. The Moroccan diplomat also appeared to harden Morocco's stance, just a day after the Spanish government said it was ready to retreat from the island, if Rabat agreed to return to a "status quo."

In addition, Mr. Benaissa suggested that two other contentious territories, the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, which are sandwiched inside Moroccan territory, should also be up for discussion. Mr. Benaissa said overseas territories like Ceuta and Melilla were part of the colonial past. They were not, he said, part of what he called "realpolitik" of the 21st century.