- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 13, 2002

CEUTA, Spanish North Africa Spanish warships headed for North Africa yesterday after a humiliating day for Madrid, with a dozen Moroccan troops invading a disputed island and Britain effectively shelving talks on Gibraltar.

The drama in the western Mediterranean began after the troops landed on the uninhabited island of Perejil, which has been regarded as Spanish for more than 400 years.

Madrid has long struggled to justify its determination to hold on to its colonies while insisting that Britain withdraw from Gibraltar.

As darkness fell, the rocky outcrop was just visible from the coast less than half a mile away, where Moroccan police had sealed off access to the roads leading to the shore. There was no sign of the troops or the flags they had erected at each end of the island.

The Moroccan action seemed timed to coincide with yesterday's formal celebration in the capital, Rabat, of the wedding of the country's absolute ruler, King Mohammed, and Princess Salma. Rabat echoed to the sound of fireworks and parades through the flower-strewn Mechouar Square, where enormous pictures of the monarch were hung.

Spain responded furiously to the invasion, implicitly threatening military action. Newspapers in Madrid demanded a robust response.

If fighting does break out, Spain's navy is far larger, comprising an aircraft carrier equipped with Harriers, eight submarines and 15 major surface vessels.

Morocco's navy is led by a 20-year-old frigate backed by 27 patrol craft and gunboats.

Ana Palacio, Spain's new foreign minister, described the situation as "very serious" and demanded a Moroccan withdrawal.

The European Union also expressed concern, saying the invasion was "clearly a violation of Spanish territory."

But Morocco insisted that it had "every right" to occupy Perejil. An official in Rabat said the island was Moroccan and that the decision to set up an observation post there was "neither a provocation, nor a threat towards Spain."

The dispute blew up as British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw tried to put a positive gloss on the faltering talks over Gibraltar. He told British members of Parliament that the negotiations, which were intended to lead to a deal this month, would not resume until the autumn.

There were protests in the House of Commons when he announced that Britain and Spain accepted the principle of shared sovereignty for Gibraltar. This was one of the "many principles" on which they were in broad agreement, he said.

The Conservatives argued that discussing joint sovereignty, which is fiercely opposed by almost all on Gibraltar, was "shabby and dishonorable."

But Mr. Straw's statement implied that the chances of the government striking a deal with Spain were limited and that the status quo could be preserved.

Madrid was more concerned with the possibility of further Moroccan action and reinforced its garrison on the Chafarinas, another small island group.

Mariano Rajoy, a government spokesman, said in Madrid: "A Moroccan patrol boat was seen carrying out maneuvers close to one of the islands, and as a result, the government has decided to strengthen the military, which is permanently based in the territories."

Madrid increased the pressure on Morocco, noting that it was the biggest recipient of Spanish foreign aid.

A government spokesman said 200,000 Moroccans lived in Spain and that this summer some 1.5 million Moroccans would pass through the country or take vacations there.

El Mundo, a pro-government newspaper, urged Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar not to ignore the "hostile act," even if Perejil was not worth the fuel needed to send boats to patrol it.

"The king of Morocco has chosen the path of confrontation with one of the great European democracies, and this should have a serious price for him," it said.

Spain has long faced a dilemma over what were known in classical times as the Pillars of Hercules.

It owns the southern pillar, Mount Hacho, which dominates its Ceuta enclave, which Morocco claims. The northern pillar, Gibraltar, was granted to Britain in perpetuity by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, but it is claimed by Spain.

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