Return to status quo U.S. brokers resolution to Spain's standof

Sunday, July 21, 2002

MADRID, Spain -- Spanish troops began to withdraw from a tiny Mediterranean island on Saturday after their country 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 on Wednesday and removed Moroccan gendarmes who had deployed there unexpectedly on July 11. Saturday evening, 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 "The Spanish government has withdrawn its forces," its Foreign Ministry said through the official news agency MAP.

Both sides claim the island -- a giant rock on a tiny slip of land about 200 yards off Morocco's coast -- but usually it is uninhabited but for a few goats.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and a Spanish government spokesman said the deal meant a return to situation before July.

Spain had offered to remove the troops if Morocco promised not to try to reoccupy the island. Spanish spokesman Mariano Rajoy said the U.S.-brokered deal "presumes the return to the status quo from before July."

Spanish Foreign Minister Specific terms of the resolution were not immediately disclosed. Both Spain and Morocco thanked the United States for its role in resolving a dispute that both sides seemed weary of.

The spat over the island highlighted sometimes rocky relations between Spain and Morocco, which which face each other across the narrow Gibraltar Strait at the mouth of the Mediterranean.

Benaissa 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 Friday in Paris. "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."

The dozen Moroccan gendarmes 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 ever since.

Spain also stationed troops a few days ago on another usually uninhabited island it claims, Isla de Lobos (Island of Wolves), located in the Atlantic Ocean off Morocco's west coast.

Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar reportedly had wanted to resolve the Perejil issue ahead of an EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday.

Newspaper Al Alam faulted the Moroccan government's lack of foresight, saying that it should have understood in advance the "betrayal" of the Spaniards and notified the U.N., the European Union and NATO "as soon as Moroccan security agents arrived on the islet."

The Madrid daily El Pais editorialized Saturday 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."

In an isolated incident Saturday 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.

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.

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