Moroccans booted off disputed island

Thursday, July 18, 2002

JEBEL LEILA, Morocco -- Elite Spanish soldiers swooped in aboard helicopters Wednesday, capturing a disputed Mediterranean island occupied by Moroccan soldiers for more than a week. Neither side fired a shot.

The Spanish soldiers quickly detained the troops in the surprise assault on the island claimed by both countries, supplanting the Moroccan flag with their own. Morocco said the operation was tantamount to "an act of war" and demanded that Spain withdraw.

Tensions have escalated in the week since Morocco established an outpost on the tiny island known in Spanish as Isla Perejil -- Parsley Island -- and in Arabic as Leila -- Night.

Relations between the two countries, which face each other across the Strait of Gibraltar, have soured since Morocco recalled its ambassador to Madrid last fall.

Spain says it has controlled the island since 1668, even though it abandoned a permanent presence four decades ago. The island lies about three miles from Ceuta, one of two Spanish city enclaves along Morocco's northern coast.

Morocco also claims title to the island and said it set up the "observation post" to combat smuggling of drugs and illegal immigrants.

Just before dawn, five Spanish military helicopters flew toward the island. From the air, the Moroccans were ordered to put down their weapons and surrender.

Three helicopters with 28 Spanish soldiers landed, took the Moroccans into custody and set up a base on the island, Trillo said.

The Moroccans were taken to Ceuta.

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