Spain retakes disputed island off Morocco

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PM José María Aznar

«We were obliged to order the removal of the Moroccan detachment»

PM José María Aznar

afrol News, 17 July - Spanish armed troops this morning took the disputed island Perejil (known as Leila in Morocco) 200 meters off the Moroccan coast. The seven Moroccan soldiers placed on the island were captured in an operation without deaths or injured, the Spanish government informs. Morocco calls the opertation "a declaration of war."

The Spanish government in an official note informed that it found itself "obliged to order the removal of the Moroccan detachment established on Perejil Island, without the result of deaths or injured." The operation, involving naval unities, special ground troops and armed bomber planes, was carried out at 6:15 this morning (local time). The operation was launched without any anterior public warning troops may be use. 

Morocco's ex-Minister of Defense and leader of one of the government coalition parties, Mahjoubi Aherdane, today reacted strongly on the Spanish military operation. He said he considered this "a declaration of war and an error" which should "break the relations" with Spain. Rabat Abdelkrim Khatib, another coalition party leader, also pleaded for the rupture of all contacts with Spain over this "attack against Morocco and its territorial integrity." There have not been made any official government statements yet.

After the detachment of Moroccan troops on the disputed island on 11 July, Spain had assured itself support of its allies in the European Union and NATO. Both shouldered Spanish demands of an "immediate retreat" of the Moroccan troops and the reestablishment of "status quo". Spain also sent warships and other military personnel to reinforce its northern African exclaves Ceuta and Melilla and a dozen other uninhabited islands off Morocco.

Following the official Moroccan answer that the troops would stay on what was "Moroccan territory," Spain again warned Morocco it would "not accept fact on the ground" (PM José María Aznar). Yesterday evening, Spain recalled its ambassador in Rabat as a last preparation before military action. 

Morocco claims Leila Island has always been Moroccan except for the period of Spanish protectorate over northern Morocco. Leila was returned to Morocco as the protectorate was dissolved in 1956 and the Spanish claim on the island was not to be found on any document or map of this time. Last week's placing of Moroccan troops on the island had been done to crack down on terrorism, drug trafficking and illegal immigration, Moroccan officials said.

Spain on the other hand claims the island has been Spanish since the establishment of Spanish control over Ceuta in the 15th century. Discontinuous military operations, based on the rock, until the 1960s demonstrated Spain's sovereignty over Perejil Island, Madrid holds. Since then, "status quo" had been not sending troops to the island from neither country laying claim to the island, the Spanish viewpoint continues.

Morocco's establishment of a military camp on the island was seen as an "unfriendly" act by Spain, the EU and NATO. It was contrary to the 1991 Cooperation and Friendship Treaty between the two neighbours, which stands at risk of being suspended. Morocco had asked for a negotiated solution and so far had characterised these reactions as "exaggerated", and probably will not change this view in light of Spain's military actions. 

At this moment - having the military upper hand - it is Spain asking for a negotiated solution. Four hours after the operation, the seven captured Moroccan soldiers were set free and handed over to Moroccan authorities. Immediately after the operation, the Spanish government contacted Morocco, offering negotiations. Also the UN Security Council had been contacted.

No official statement has been given by Moroccan authorities yet, but a very strong protest is expected, as indicated by statements made by the party leaders of Morocco's government coalision. The Moroccan view will undoubtedly be one of a Spanish invasion of Moroccan territory as Rabat clearly has stated that Leila/Perejil belongs to Morocco. A diplomatic break or even further military action cannot be ruled out. 

The relation between the two neighbours therefore seems to have hit rock bottom since the last grand crisis, when thousands of Moroccan settlers peacefully invaded the then Spanish colony of Western Sahara in 1974. With relations normalised during the 1980s and 1990s, the succession to crown by Moroccan King Mohammed in 1999 meant a more aggressive Moroccan foreign policy. 

The cooling of relations between the two neighbours has gone on for almost a year. Spain now more overtly supports the independence movement of Western Sahara, now occupied by Morocco. In October last year, Morocco withdrew its Madrid ambassador, who has not been reinstated since. In January, Morocco qualified Spanish oil prospecting off the Canary Islands as an "unfriendly" act. 

Shortly before the deployment of troops on Perejil/Leila, Morocco protested fiercely against Spanish warships exercising too close to the Moroccan coast. The military struggle over Perejil/Leila is set to hurt relations between the two neighbours for years to come.

Based on Spanish govt and press and afrol archives.

© afrol News.

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