Spanish retake rule of disputed island


BEL YOUNECH, Morocco - Spanish special forces backed by helicopters and warships stormed the disputed islet of Perejil at dawn yesterday, taking prisoner its six occupying Moroccan troops in a bloodless operation to restore Spanish rule.

The Moroccan foreign minister, Mohamed Benaissa, called the action "comparable to an act of war," and King Mohamed VI said in a statement that Spain "wants to use this issue and transform a political difference into a military conflict."

But Spanish soldiers who took part in the victorious armada felt jubilation. "When I saw the Spanish flag go up, I almost wept," said one 23-year-old. A comrade, 22, added, "We all feel really proud."

By afternoon there was little evidence of war at the scene. On the mainland, more than a hundred disconsolate Moroccans were perched on cliffs above Perejil, a half-mile-wide rock 200 yards offshore. They watched as Spanish soldiers wandered the barren islet, where the red-and-yellow Spanish flag has replaced the green-starred Moroccan one after five days.

"I was really surprised, it is a very bad thing to do," said Hassan Cheiri, a taxi driver who had walked up from Bel Younech, the nearest village, to see Perejil (parsley in Spanish) - known in Morocco as Leila. "The rock is so close to the Moroccan coast."

The Moroccan government obviously feels the same way. Last week, it ordered gendarmes to set up camp on Perejil in defiance of Madrid, which has claimed ownership since 1668. Yesterday Morocco decried the Spanish action as "this aggression," demanding "an immediate and unconditional withdrawal" of the troops. It also protested to the United Nations, the Arab League and the Islamic Conference.

"We must recover the island, but we need to hold talks, to recover it peacefully, because Spain is our neighbor," said Said, a 22-year-old who would not give his surname. "It is not worth going to war."

Madrid, which informed the U.N. Security Council about the operation, does not plan to maintain a garrison on the island, Foreign Minister Ana Palacio told members of Congress, the vast majority of whom supported the government's action.

But she said Spain wanted to see a "return without delay to the situation before July 11," the day Morocco moved troops onto the island.

Benaissa also demanded a return to that situation, telling CNN, "Now the ball is in the Spanish court - they have to leave the island as it was before 11 July."

Over the past few years, Spanish and Moroccan police officials have visited the island in pursuit of drug traffickers and smugglers; Rabat justified its military deployment by saying it was erecting an observation post to counter illegal immigration and terrorism.

That argument was not accepted in Madrid.

"Spain was attacked by force in a very sensitive part of its geography," Defense Minister Federico Trillo told Congress. "In military terms, we are talking about a clear case of legitimate defense."

Rabat, which pulled its envoy out of Madrid last autumn, complains of Spanish arrogance in refusing to discuss several issues, including the flow of illegal immigrants from Morocco to Spain and fishing rights.

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