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Europe: Morocco Demands That Spain Leave Parsley Island

The crisis between Spain and Morocco over a disputed Mediterranean island is at a dangerous point, with Morocco demanding an immediate withdrawal of Spanish troops who landed on the island yesterday. The islet in question is a barren speck of land only about 500 meters long, but the squabble has the potential to sour relations between Europe and the Islamic world.

Prague, 18 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It was the pirate threat to shipping in the 16th century that originally led the Kingdom of Spain to take possession of Parsley Island, a tiny fleck of rock in the Mediterranean just off the coast of what is now Morocco.

This week, the island became the unlikely focus of world attention after Moroccan troops landed there, ostensibly to keep watch for illegal immigrants.

Spain's reaction was swift. It dispatched a warship to the area, and yesterday helicopters carrying Spanish elite troops landed on the island and forced the surrender of the small Moroccan garrison.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Mohammed Benaissa called the Spanish reaction "an act of war." In Madrid, the spokeswoman for the Moroccan embassy, Bessri Saloua, told RFE/RL that the Spaniards must leave the disputed islet. "Yesterday, His Majesty [King Mohammed VI of Morocco] officially demanded that Spain withdraw its troops from the island immediately and without any conditions. So we are now waiting to see if they are going to do that," Saloua said.

She did not say what her country would do if the Spanish troops did not withdraw. She also reiterated the Moroccan claim to ownership of the island, pointing to its location a few hundred meters from the Moroccan coast and close to Tangiers.

Spanish Foreign Ministry chief spokesman Julio Albi rejected this claim, saying that at the time Spain took possession of the island, Morocco did not exist as an entity. He expressed Spain's desire for a speedy solution to the crisis, but only under certain conditions. "We have troops there [on the island] and that's it. [We are] just waiting for the Moroccans to give us guarantees that as soon as we withdraw our troops, they don't send theirs back, and that's it. We don't have the slightest interest in staying there for one second more than what is essential," Albi said.

Albi said Spain is ready to discuss the dispute with Morocco but on the basis of the situation being as it was before.

In London, military-affairs analyst Alexandra Ashbourne said that by choosing military means, Madrid has taken a hard line. "They are demonstrating power, although I don't really know how they would take [that policy] any further," Ashbourne said.

She said the next move belongs to Morocco, but that it must be one that does not involve loss of face for the Moroccan king. She doubted Morocco's ability to deliver a military response, and said it's time for diplomats to defuse the tension.

Relations between Rabat and Madrid have been soured in any case for almost a year over Spanish claims that the Moroccans are not doing enough to curb illegal immigrants streaming onto the Spanish coast.

The incident is threatening to strain ties further between the European Union and the Islamic world, as a polarization along the old Christian-Muslim divide has recently developed. The Arab league has backed Morocco in the dispute, while the EU has rather cautiously supported Spain.