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Moroccans eye Spanish enclave across tiny border

Penon de Velez de la Gomera, a peninsula within Spanish territory, off the coast of Morocco’s Al-Hoceima national park. (AFP)
BADES, Morocco: It is one of the shortest land borders in the world: A few dozen meters of plastic cord across a sandbank separate Morocco from the tiny Spanish enclave of Penon de Velez de la Gomera.
Wooden boats lie amid nets worn by seawater at the foot of the imposing mini-peninsula, home to a Spanish military base.
“Don’t approach the string!” a Moroccan soldier shouted from a pillbox, his helmet askew.
“They might shoot you with plastic bullets,” he said in a lower tone of voice, before retreating to the shade of his wooden shelter on a slope facing the Mediterranean.
Penon de Velez de la Gomera is one of seven Spanish enclaves on the northern coast of Morocco, which claims sovereignty over all of them.
The best known are Ceuta, which overlooks the strategically vital Strait of Gibraltar, and Melilla, further to the east.
But a string of islets remain under Spanish control, including several occupied by Spanish forces.
These tiny leftovers of Spain’s once vast empire have been a source of tension between Morocco and its former colonial occupier.
One of them, Perejil — known to Moroccans as Leila — was at the heart of an angry spat between the two countries 15 years ago this week.
A handful of Moroccan soldiers briefly took over the outcrop just 200 meters off the coast in 2002. The incident ended with a bloodless intervention by Spanish commandos.
But today, the topic of Madrid’s enclaves receives little attention. Local press reports say “things have changed,” and the two are now close partners.
“Here we don’t have any real problem with the Spaniards, even though it’s as if our village is occupied,” said Hamed Aharouch, 27.
Aharouch sat on a plastic chair outside his fisherman’s hut in the hamlet of Bades, a stone’s throw from the Spanish base.
Perched at the end of a dusty track criss-crossing the mountains of Al-Hoceima national park, Bades seems to lie at the end of the world.
The Spanish peninsula, 87 meters at its highest point, dominates the bay, an enchanting cove of blue waters hemmed in by rocky slopes.
Spain’s gold and red flag flies above the fortress which its forces have held since the 16th century.
Military helicopters fly in to a landing pad part way down the slope, and below it, a guard peered from an observation post.

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