Spain sends gunboats to disputed island

SPAIN sent gunboats yesterday to the north coast of Morocco and demanded Moroccan troops withdraw after "invading" a tiny island claimed by both countries.

The timing of the incident would not have been lost on the Spanish foreign ministry or the Foreign Office, coming at the same time as Britain’s offer to share sovereignty over Gibraltar with Spain.

Three Spanish patrol boats and at least one Moroccan vessel were patrolling the Spanish North African enclave of Ceuta yesterday as the two prepared for a diplomatic battle over the barren, unpopulated and strategically unimportant islet of Perejil, which is known as the "dead woman" because of its shape when seen from the mainland.

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Up to a dozen Moroccan troops who landed on the island on Thursday were still there yesterday, flying red and green Moroccan flags. A Moroccan spokesman said they were watching for terrorists and people traffickers in the nearby Strait of Gibraltar.

The outcrop, controlled by Spain since the 17th century, is a half mile wide and just a few hundred yards from the coast. It is three miles from Ceuta, one of two Spanish enclaves on Morocco’s northern coast.

Spain also controls three other rocky islands in the area. Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s deputy prime minister, said security had been stepped up at Spain’s possessions in the zone after Moroccan forces were seen near other islands.

In a note to the Moroccan Embassy in Madrid, Spain called for an end to the Perejil occupation and adherence to a 1991 friendship agreement.

"We have heard nothing back and the soldiers are still there," a foreign ministry spokesman told The Scotsman.

Mr Rajoy said the occupation was "a hostile act" and warned Morocco to take into account that it was the biggest recipient of Spanish foreign aid and a major trading partner.

Mr Rajoy also pointed out that approximately 200,000 Moroccans live in Spain and that this summer some 1.5 million Moroccans would cross the country to make the yearly trek home for holidays from Europe.

The dispute dates back to the 1950s, when France and Spain gave up territory they controlled under a protectorate arrangement. Under a 1956 deal, Spain kept the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, but Morocco strongly disputes Spanish control over several islands.

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The Moroccan foreign ministry official said Perejil "was liberated in 1956 at the end of the Spanish protectorate".

Spain and Morocco are opposite each other at the western gateway to the Mediterranean.

Relations have been raw for some time - Rabat unexpectedly withdrew its ambassador to Madrid in October and has yet to give an official reason.

Spain believes Morocco is peeved over Spain’s insistence that a long-delayed United Nations-backed self-determination referendum should be held on the Western Sahara, a territory formerly controlled by Spain but annexed by Morocco in the mid-1970s.

The two countries have also been involved in disputes over fishing and illegal immigration to Spain.

Spain, which yesterday received EU backing, admits that while it has controlled Perejil for several hundred years, the rock has not been legally documented as Spanish in recent decades.

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