Rabat - Morocco and Spain agreed to go ahead by the end of the century with a century-old dream of linking Europe and Africa by building a tunnel under the Gibraltar Strait.
"We hope to start geological and scientific work [for the tunnel] by 1997 but it might take longer than that ... it is a problem of financing," the Moroccan Finance Minister, Mohamed Kabbaj, said.
A joint communique issued at the end of a two-day visit by the Spanish Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, said the tunnel was of enormous political and economic value to both countries, which have bilateral trade exceeding $1bn (pounds 650m).
"Conscious of the political and economic importance of a fixed link between Europe and Africa beneath the Straits of Gibraltar, which would consolidate regional cooperation, the two parties congratulate themselves on taking the project beyond the study phase," the communique said.
Analysts have estimated the proposed 14-mile tunnel at the mouth of Mediterranean, one of the greatest engineering challenges in the world, would cost more than $10bn.They say the project would be as significant in geopolitical terms as the building of the Suez Canal.
Diplomats say the tunnel idea was given new impetus after last November's Euro-Mediterranean conference in Barcelona, which sought to embrace countries south of the Mediterranean into a free trade pact with the European Union. Mr Kabbaj said that once funding was raised, the first phase could begin as early as 1997 - although he doubted this was feasible.
This involved construction of a service gallery at a cost of 315 million ecus ($253m), to be followed by a single-rail undersea tunnel down to a depth of 3,000 feet. Mr Kabbaj said Morocco and Spain would seek aid from the EU and other Western donors to fund the project, which would significantly boost Morocco's access to its main export market.