Spain offers to end occupation of disputed rock

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The Independent Online

Spain promised yesterday to end its military occupation of the tiny, barren island of Perejil but demanded that Morocco guarantee the disputed rock's neutrality first.

Spain promised yesterday to end its military occupation of the tiny, barren island of Perejil but demanded that Morocco guarantee the disputed rock's neutrality first.

Amid intense diplomatic efforts to resolve the row, Madrid said it had no interest in prolonging tension and wanted to return to an agreement held until 11 July under which Perejil was left unoccupied.

Spain and Morocco are both under intense pressure from the EU and from Washington to defuse the crisis, which flared after a dozen Moroccan soldiers landed on Perejil – which Moroccans call Leila – last week. Spain, fearing that Morocco might also move on its nearby North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, has since tightened security on Ceuta, where riot police are manning the streets.

Its military operation to retake Perejil was initially backed by its European allies but growing unease has since led them to tone down their support. Morocco lost little time in portraying the decision by Spain to retake control of the island – which is only 200 metres from Morocco's shore – as the heavy-handed response of a colonial power. The Moroccan Foreign minister, Mohammed Ben Aissa, described the move as "an ignoble act which amounts to an act of war".

The issue of the island's sovereignty remains unclear. Although it has belonged to Spain since 1668, it has long been claimed by Morocco. Both sides agreed in the 1960s to allow it to remain unoccupied.

The Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, said he wanted to return to that "stable and durable" arrangement. "No one is more interested than Spain in maintaining the best relations with the kingdom of Morocco," he said.

The Spanish Foreign minister, Ana Palacio, rejected Morocco's claims that Spain had made a "declaration of war", adding: "We need to work to lower tensions." She said that guarantees of Perejil's neutrality "could come from the government [or] from the king", but insisted that mediation was unnecessary.

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