- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 21, 2002

MADRID Spanish troops began to withdraw from a tiny Mediterranean island yesterday, after Spain and Morocco agreed to a U.S.-mediated deal ending their 10-day confrontation over the usually unoccupied rock.
Neither side gave up its claims to the islet, about the size of several football fields, but they agreed to return the island to its former situation: with no forces from either side on it, Spain and the United States said.
Spain landed 75 troops on the island Wednesday and removed Moroccan gendarmes who had deployed there unexpectedly July 11. Last night, the Spanish commandos began leaving with their equipment by helicopter, and the rest were to follow shortly, the Spanish state news agency EFE reported.
Morocco said later the pullout was complete. "The Spanish government has withdrawn its forces," its Foreign Ministry said through the official news agency, MAP. Spain did not immediately confirm that all its troops were off.
The island a giant rock on a tiny slip of land about 200 yards off Morocco's coast is known to Spaniards as Perejil (parsley in Spanish) and to Moroccans as Leila (night in Arabic). Both sides claim it, but usually it is uninhabited but for a few goats.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and a Spanish government spokesman said the deal meant a return to the situation before July when neither side had troops on the 32-acre islet just off the Moroccan coast.
Morocco is "pleased that the Spanish forces are leaving and thanks Colin Powell for his personal efforts in facilitating a return to wisdom and the importance of dialogue," a Moroccan official said in the capital, Rabat.
Mr. Powell spoke to King Mohammed of Morocco and Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio several times during the past 24 hours to resolve the dispute.
Spain had offered to remove the troops if Morocco promised not to try to reoccupy the island. Spanish spokesman Mariano Rajoy said the deal "presumes the return to the status quo from before July."
Specific terms of the resolution were not immediately disclosed.
In a sign that the standoff is ending, officials in both capitals said Miss Palacio will meet her Moroccan counterpart, Mohammed Benaissa, in Rabat tomorrow.
The spat over the island highlighted sometimes rocky relations between Spain and Morocco, which face each other across the narrow Strait of Gibraltar at the mouth of the Mediterranean.
The dozen Moroccan gendarmes were deployed on the island ostensibly to monitor drug and immigrant smuggling. Spanish commandos removed the Moroccans peacefully Wednesday, leaving several dozen troops camped under the blazing sun. Spanish warships and helicopters have patrolled the area since.
Spain also stationed troops a few days ago on another usually uninhabited island it claims, Isla de Lobos (Island of Wolves), in the Atlantic Ocean off Morocco's west coast.
In an isolated incident yesterday afternoon, Spanish troops on the island detained a 27-year-old Moroccan who reached the rock in a small boat and attempted to place a Moroccan flag on it.
Three Spanish soldiers handcuffed him. The Spanish news agency Europa Press said the man swallowed a bottle of pills before being detained and was taken to a hospital in the Spanish enclave Ceuta.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar is reported to have wanted to resolve the Perejil issue before a European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels tomorrow.
Mr. Benaissa, the Moroccan minister, also brought up the issue that Spain fears is at the thorny heart of the matter the status of prosperous Spanish enclaves Ceuta and Melilla, on Morocco's coast.
"Let's be realistic," he told reporters in Paris on Friday. "Sooner or later, we must confront this subject. Spain says it has a treaty, but it is a treaty of occupation. You can change it."
Both countries seem to be growing weary of the dispute that escalated in ways neither side anticipated.
The Al Alam newspaper faulted the Moroccan government's lack of foresight, saying it should have understood in advance the "betrayal" of the Spaniards and notified the United Nations, the European Union and NATO "as soon as Moroccan security agents arrived on the islet."
The Madrid daily El Pais editorialized yesterday about the "conflict that Rabat never should have started and to which the Spanish government overreacted with a military deployment that is proof of the diplomatic failure of Aznar's policy toward Morocco."

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