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Tension grows over disputed island

Spanish troops raise the national flag on Perejil
Spanish troops raise the national flag on Perejil  

MADRID, Spain -- Morocco is demanding the immediate withdrawal of Spanish forces from a tiny disputed island off the Moroccan coast.

Elite Spanish troops evicted Moroccan soldiers from the island during a lightning daybreak operation on Wednesday. Six Moroccan troops were captured. No shots were fired, and no-one was injured.

The island -- called Perejil by Spain, Leila by Morocco, and also known as Parsley -- had been occupied by Moroccan soldiers since last Thursday.

Spanish troops have now planted a Spanish flag on the island where Moroccan troops had flown the Moroccan flag since landing there.

The Moroccan foreign ministry said after the operation that Spain's use of force had been unjustified and contradicted international relations.

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"Confronted with this aggression, the Moroccan Kingdom demands, before anything else, the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Spanish armed forces from Leila island, which is an integral part of Moroccan territory," it said.

Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palcio said on Wednesday Spain intended to end its operation as soon as possible and did not intend to maintain a permanent presence on the island.

Six Moroccans taken into custody on Perejil were brought to the Spanish enclave city of Ceuta, located in northern Morocco, said a Spanish government source. The soldiers were examined by a doctor, given breakfast and then were returned Morocco at 10 a.m.

In a precautionary move, Spanish police beefed up security for the 75,000 residents of Ceuta in the event of any cross border moves by Morocco. Ceuta is about 10 kilometres (6 miles) from Perejil.

The island had been uninhabited for decades until about 12 Moroccan troops occupied it last Thursday, hoisting Moroccan flags, setting up tents and getting backing from the Moroccan government, which said the the troops were there to stay.

Morocco claims the island as part of its territory, but Spain says the island is in dispute and that the two countries had agreed years ago to leave it uninhabited. (Island facts)

The island is only the size of a few football fields, but since last Thursday has been the focus of an international diplomatic row.

Spain -- a member of the European Union and of NATO -- got both organisations to publicly pressure Morocco to withdraw.

At the same time, Spain immediately began building up its presence in the area -- sending warships, a submarine, and reconnaissance planes -- while insisting it wanted a diplomatic solution.

Perejil has been controlled by Spain since the 17th century, but Morocco insists it inherited the island when it gained independence in 1956.

Spain believes Morocco was using Perejil to highlight other differences, such as fishing rights, illegal immigration and the Western Sahara, which was annexed by Morocco from Spain in the 1970s and where the United Nations has ruled a self-determination referendum should be held.

Relations between the two countries have come under increasing strain since October, when Morocco recalled its ambassador to Spain in a row over the issues.

Morocco has also frequently called on Spain to turn over control of the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla -- but Spain maintains they were Spanish for centuries before Morocco existed as a country.

Spain is Morocco's second main trading partner after France with over $1 billion in foreign trade exchanges, and is among its leading sources of foreign investment.


• Spain
• Morocco

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