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Spain Leaves Disputed Islet Empty Again

Sovereignty: Troops depart rocky outcropping after diplomatic intervention, but quarrel with Morocco is not resolved.

July 21, 2002|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — Spain withdrew its military forces from a disputed islet off the northwest coast of Africa on Saturday as part of a deal with Morocco that returned the speck of rock to its previous status: empty.

Though the move eased a military and diplomatic confrontation that began more than a week ago, it did not bring a decisive end to the rift over the outcropping, which the Spanish call Isla del Perejil, or Parsley Island, and the Moroccans call Leila.

Rather, the pullout was more akin to fighters returning to their corners and agreeing to continue the match another day--although it now appears that both sides have decided that diplomatic channels, and not a military conflict, would probably be the best way to settle ownership of an uninhabited rock best suited to grazing goats.

"The Spanish government has withdrawn its forces from the Moroccan islet of ... Leila after contacts, crowned with success, undertaken by His Majesty King Mohammed VI with the American administration," Morocco's Foreign Ministry said through the country's official news agency.

The controversy over the rock inflamed Europe, outraged the Arab world, and threatened to undermine U.S. efforts to combat international terrorism by alienating two key players in the battle, Spain and Morocco. The conflict also aggravated already raw feelings between the Arab world and the West.

From Spain's perspective, it was Morocco that instigated the conflict July 11 when it ferried about a dozen police officers to the islet, where they set up tents and, most alarming to Spain, raised the Moroccan flag.

But from Morocco's perspective, the whole affair began in 1956, when Spain ended its colonial grip on Morocco but held on to several enclaves just off the coast. Spain says the two nations signed a treaty that gave Spain control of the enclaves; Morocco says the treaty is just a nicety for occupation of Moroccan territory and must be changed.

"Let's be realistic," Moroccan Foreign Minister Mohammed Benaissa said Friday. "Sooner or later, we must confront this subject. Spain says it has a treaty, but it is a treaty of occupation. You can change it."

Few outside of Spain and Morocco had ever heard of these territories--or, if they had, never calculated that such strategically inconsequential areas could spark such a messy conflict.

Then Morocco sent its forces to the islet. It said the point was to set up a watch post for illegal immigration and smuggling and to aid in the war on terrorism--but it also pressed the point that the rock's name was Leila and its nationality Moroccan.

Suddenly, Europeans were aghast at what was being called the first invasion of West European territory since World War II. Spain threatened to suspend its friendship treaty with Morocco, and the European Union was talking about imposing economic sanctions. The EU said the issue was respect for international law.

Morocco's king was celebrating his wedding when his police climbed up on the rock, but his ministers seemed genuinely surprised at the reaction to the country's maneuver. The government was even more surprised when Spain moved warships into the vicinity, and it was more shocked still when, on Wednesday morning, elite Spanish forces landed on the island and took six Moroccan police officers prisoner. They were later let go.

Events were spiraling faster than either side had anticipated, or cared for. Washington stepped in to help mediate between the two nations, both of which it counts as friends.

The State Department was first to announce Saturday that both sides had agreed to return to the status quo, at least for now.

"Following consultations by the United States ... the two sides have agreed to restore the situation regarding the island that existed prior to July 2002," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said.

Officials on both sides said Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio would meet Benaissa in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, on Monday. The terms of the agreement were not disclosed. Spain said only that both sides agreed to return the disputed rock to its previous status, void of anything but some bugs, parsley and the occasional goat.

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