- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2002

CEUTA, Spanish North Africa Spanish troops planted their flag and routed a unit of Moroccan soldiers from a tiny, uninhabited Mediterranean island yesterday without firing a shot. Six Moroccans were held prisoner for a few hours.

Morocco demanded the immediate withdrawal of Spanish forces, saying the island was an "integral part" of Moroccan territory.

The confrontation takes place against a backdrop of tensions between the two countries, separated by the Mediterranean Sea, over issues ranging from illegal immigration to fishing rights.

The predawn Spanish operation was the latest move in a standoff that began last Thursday, when 12 Moroccan soldiers landed on the tiny island, set up tents and raised the national flag. The island, known as Isla Perejil to Spaniards and Leila to Moroccans, has been claimed by Spain for 300 years.

Morocco also claims the island, where there has been no Spanish presence for the past 40 years. The slab of rock lies about three miles from Ceuta, one of two Spanish city enclaves along Morocco's northern coast.

It is thought to be one of the mythological "Pillars of Hercules," along with the Rock of Gibraltar across the strait, and historians have connected the island with Ogigia, mentioned in Homer's "The Odyssey."

Spanish Defense Minister Federico Trillo said the predawn operation was carried out in less than an hour without a shot being fired. A 28-member unit of Spanish special forces landed in three helicopters, supported by two more over the island. They demanded that the Moroccans surrender, the defense minister said.

As the three helicopters approached the island, the Moroccans were told by megaphone to lay down their weapons, the defense minister said. After they did, the choppers landed and the Spanish forces took over the island, taking the Moroccans into custody. Mr. Trillo said the Moroccans did not resist.

Foreign Minister Ana Palacio said the action was not an attempt "to impose any solution by force" but rather to restore the island to the status quo, when it was used by Spanish police patrols to fight illegal immigration and smuggling.

"Spain has no interest in maintaining a permanent military presence on the island," she said.

Morocco condemned "this unjustified aggression at the moment when Morocco and Spain were trying to resolve this crisis by diplomatic means," said a statement issued by the official news agency MAP.

The six Moroccans taken prisoner were brought to Ceuta and sent to Morocco several hours later. The detainees, who wore green working overalls, crossed the border silently, with dejected expressions on their faces.

From the hills of Belyounech, a Moroccan coastal village about 200 yards from Perejil, two Spanish flags could be seen flying over the island by midmorning.

At least a dozen Spanish soldiers were building what appeared to be a small stone wall along the shore. Two soldiers patrolled the island as a helicopter surveyed overhead and five warships circled nearby.


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