- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 16, 2002

MADRID Morocco refused yesterday to pull its troops from a disputed Mediterranean island it occupied last week despite stern warnings from Spain and the European Union.
Moroccan Foreign Minister Mohammed Benaissa said the "observation post" set up on the rocky outcrop was done in the "framework of exercising the sovereignty of the Moroccan state."
The tiny island, not much bigger than a soccer field, has caused a major diplomatic crisis between two countries, whose relations were under deep strain over other disputes.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar issued a sharp warning that Madrid would not tolerate deploying the dozen troops on the islet, known in Spain as Perejil and as Leila in Morocco.
"Spain will not accept a fait accompli," Mr. Aznar told parliament in a state of the union address, adding that it was "essential to return to the status quo before the occupation."
A Spanish Foreign Ministry spokesman said Madrid had received a response to its protest about the arrival of the troops, which Rabat called an effort to clamp down on clandestine emigration and terrorism.
While the spokesman said the letter was "not entirely negative," Deputy Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said it "contained no mention of re-establishing the former situation and does not take the Spanish request into account."
The response "brings no convincing arguments or new elements," Mr. Rajoy said before issuing a new appeal that the Moroccan troops leave the island.
In Brussels, European Commission President Romano Prodi warned that "measures could be taken at EU level" if the two countries did not find a diplomatic solution.
Spain has vowed to pursue a claim to the island, off the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, bordering Morocco, and has sent four warships to the area.
Mr. Benaissa said Sunday that the Spanish reaction was out of proportion and that Rabat believed that "the situation can be contained by means of dialogue."
"Morocco hasn't invaded Spain with 10 soldiers landing on this little rock in Moroccan local waters 180 meters off its coast," Mr. Benaissa said. That distance equals 198 yards.
"It's possible calmly to find a formula to cooperate with Spain on several outstanding problems, including Leila Island," the minister suggested.
Spanish Foreign Minister Ana de Palacio responded sharply, urging Mr. Benaissa to "take into account what the European Union and Spain have asked him to urgently do and to conduct himself as a partner, a friend and a member of the international community."
The Danish presidency of the European Union weighed in on Sunday and demanded that Morocco pull back the soldiers, while the 22-member Arab League threw its support behind Morocco. NATO backs Spain, but is not planning any action.
Russia also jumped into the fray, saying it was "worried about the growing tension between Spain and Morocco" and urging that "a solution to such a problem must be found through negotiations, through peace efforts."
Other issues damaging Moroccan-Spanish ties include illegal immigration to Spain from North Africa, the nonrenewal of an EU fishing accord with Morocco, the disputed territory of Western Sahara and oil prospecting off Spain's Canary Islands.

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