Spain moves warships near disputed island

By Munsif Al-Sulaimi, Arab News Staff
Publication Date: 
Sun, 2002-07-14 03:00

RABAT, 14 July — Morocco and Spain dug themselves deeper into a territorial conflict yesterday, with Madrid dispatching warships and building up its military forces in the North African outposts of Ceuta and Melilla as well as the Strait of Gibraltar.

Spanish Defense Ministry sources said Madrid had dispatched three naval warships to its two Spanish enclaves on Morocco’s coast, Ceuta and Melilla, while four Spanish military helicopters continued patrolling the area. On Thursday, Morocco deployed around a dozen troops to the uninhabited island — known as Perejil in Spain and Leila in Morocco — which is barely the size of a football field facing the Strait of Gibraltar.

Spain said it was awaiting a Moroccan response to its demand for a troop withdrawal from the disputed island off Morocco’s north coast. But Morocco insisted that it kept control over the island.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said in Cairo the 22-member pan-Arab organization supported Morocco’s claim to the tiny Mediterranean island.

“The League’s position is to support the Moroccan position in relation to Leila island which is a Moroccan island,” Moussa told reporters after speaking by phone with Moroccan Foreign Minister Mohammed Benaissa.

European Commission President Romano Prodi reportedly held telephone talks yesterday with Moroccan Prime Minister Abderrahman Youssoufi and Spanish Foreign Minister Ana de Palacio.

Opting for a diplomatic resolution of the issue, Palacio spoke by telephone Friday night with her Moroccan counterpart Mohammed Benaissa to try to find a satisfactory solution to what Spain has called “an unfriendly act,” news reports said.

Spanish Defense Minister Federico Trillo said yesterday a frigate, two corvettes, submarines, aircraft and numerous helicopters had been mobilized in the area but the current situation was quiet and Morocco had not yet issued an official statement on the crisis.

He said Madrid had informed the current EU president Denmark about the incident but had not asked the EU to intervene.

Trillo said a naval frigate had arrived at Ceuta, and two corvettes were in Melilla, the second Spanish enclave further east along the coast, near the Algerian border.

“We have reinforced each city with two helicopters and sent another helicopter to the Chafarines (islands), to the main military base on the island, and we have begun reinforcement operations on the surrounding islets,” he told reporters in the central Spanish town of Toledo.

According to television news reports, another half a dozen frigates have been dispatched to the area, plus submarines. Each frigate carries two helicopters and some 160 sailors.

But while it has sent gunboats, submarines and attack helicopters to protect territory it controls along Morocco’s Mediterranean coast, Spain has also tried to calm the situation.

“One cannot talk about an invasion here, and it does not help anyone to let things get out of hand,” Foreign Minister Palacio told the ABC newspaper in an interview published yesterday.

Madrid has stopped short of claiming full sovereignty over Perejil and Palacio reiterated her government’s demands for “a return to the status quo ante”.

The Rabat government has rejected Spanish demands to immediately return the tiny uninhabited island. “Perejil is Moroccan, so there is nothing to discuss,” Information Minister Mohammed Achaari told the Spanish daily El Pais, accusing Madrid of dramatizing the situation.

He said Spain’s reaction was incomprehensible and exaggerated and Morocco’s deployment of a surveillance team of up to a dozen navy soldiers on the uninhabited islet of Perejil was not a hostile act against Spain, which despite the crisis was still “a friendly country”.

Achaari said Morocco wanted to establish an observation post on the island to combat terrorism and people smuggling in the Strait of Gibraltar. Spain sees this as contravening a secret agreement the two countries made in the 1960s.

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