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Spain, Morocco in military

Sunday, July 14, 2002

Morocco and Spain are engaged in a military stand-off over a disputed island in the western Mediterranean.

Officials said more than 10 Moroccan soldiers landed on the island on Thursday and raised two Moroccan flags. In response, Spain sent three naval vessels and military helicopters to circle Perejil, Middle East Newsline reported.

The stand-off has involved the European Union, which demanded that Moroccan troops leave the disputed island. Morocco has rejected the EU demand and said its deployment on the island of Perejil is part of Rabat's effort to combat Islamic insurgents and illegal immigration.

"Moroccan security forces have been deployed on the island whenever it has been necessary," an unidentified Moroccan Foreign Ministry official told the Rabat-based MAP news agency. "This is within the framework of a campaign led by Moroccan authorities against terrorism and clandestine emigration."

In response, Spain said it has bolstered its military presence on islands off the Moroccan coast near the Spanish enclave of Cueta. Perejil is an uninhabited island a kilometer in diameter and located 200 meters from the North African kingdom.

The Moroccan military incursion on Perejil, known as Leila in Morocco, is regarded as the most serious in a series of disputes with Spain. The two countries have argued over illegal immigration from Morocco, fishing rights in the western Mediterranean and the search for oil off Spain's Canary Island.

The EU has supported Spain's claim to the island. But the Europeans said it would not intervene.

"It is clearly a violation of Spanish territory," EU spokesman Gunnar Wiegand said. "But at the moment it is a matter between Spain and Morocco."

But the Arab League said the disputed island belongs to Morocco. "The league's position is to support the Moroccan position in relation to Leila island which is a Moroccan island," Arab League secretary-general Amr Mussa said.

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