Spanish forces evict Moroccans from disputed island

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The Independent Online

Spanish forces today evicted a unit of Moroccan soldiers from a tiny disputed Mediterranean island that had been uninhabited for decades.

Spanish forces today evicted a unit of Moroccan soldiers from a tiny disputed Mediterranean island that had been uninhabited for decades.

The Moroccan government warned it would "not fail to act."

The eviction took place without any casualties and in consultation with the UN Security Council and Spain's allies, according to a statement issued by the office of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.

"The Spanish government has found itself obliged to order an eviction of the Moroccan detachment established on Perejil Island," the statement said, adding that King Juan Carlos and all political parties were also kept abreast of the operation.

News reports said the operation took place at around 6.15am local time, involving naval units, special ground forces and combat aircraft, and said the six Moroccans on the island were taken prisoner.

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the Spanish Ambassador to Morocco, Fernando Arias–Salgado, was recalled Tuesday night for consultations on the crisis.

A ministry statement said the move was taken "following the failure of a satisfactory reply" to what it described as numerous Spanish protests over the Moroccan deployment.

In Rabat, Morocco, A top Moroccan official who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed the operation had taken place, without providing any other details. He said that Moroccan authorities "will not fail to act."

The Spanish moves came as a surprise, since government officials had repeatedly said that they wanted a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

The standoff began last Thursday, when a security force of 12 Moroccans landed on the soccer–field–sized island, set up tents and raised their national flag.

Despite the military action, the statement said the Spanish government still wished "to maintain fruitful friendly and cooperative relations" with the Moroccan kingdom, and said it was willing to initiate talks to achieve this.

Yesterday, Spain deployed another warship to waters near the island, but both the Spanish and Moroccan foreign ministers said they were pursuing diplomatic avenues.

The Defence Minister Federico Trillo had told reporters that the frigate Castilla would arrive today in Ceuta, a Spanish North African enclave three miles from the island, known as Isla Perejil to Spaniards and Leila to Moroccans.

He said the Castilla would join another four warships off the North African coast.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Mohamed Benaissa told a news conference on Monday that the people who landed on the island were police, not soldiers, as has been reported. He said they were sent to the island for a "simple surveillance operation in a sensitive zone" and would remain for "for the time being."

Morocco has said it aims to set up a surveillance post to fighting terrorism and illegal immigrant trafficking in the area.

The island, "has always been an integral part of Moroccan territory," Benaissa said in a statement.

On Tuesday, four Moroccan soldiers were seen from the mainland collecting supplies from a dinghy that came from a Moroccan navy ship. Two small Moroccan flags flew above the island.

Hardly bigger than a football field, the island has belonged to Spain since 1668, but is claimed by Morocco. There has been no Spanish presence on the island for the last 40 years.

In Cairo, Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, said the 22–nation bloc supported Morocco's claim but that talks between Spain and Morocco should continue.

The European Union has backed Spain.

Spain accuses Morocco of failing to crack down on smuggling rings that ferry tens of thousands of illegal immigrants every year across the Strait of Gibraltar.