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Thursday, 18 July, 2002, 14:08 GMT 15:08 UK
Spain seeks talks over disputed island
Moroccan protesters on the mainland opposite Perejil
Moroccan feelings run high on the issue
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has said Madrid is not seeking tense relations with Morocco and will keep diplomatic channels open to resolve the row over the disputed Mediterranean island of Perejil.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar
Mr Aznar wants guarantees from Morocco
"We want to return to the status quo before the 11 July in a stable and lasting way," Mr Aznar said in his first statement on the week-long dispute since Spanish forces on Wednesday evicted Moroccan soldiers who had occupied the island for several days.

"I have given instructions to hold the necessary contacts with the Moroccan authorities to agree the terms which guarantee the aims mentioned," Mr Aznar said.

Earlier, Spain said it would withdraw its troops from the island - so long as Morocco did not reoccupy it.

"That is to say, if we leave, the Moroccans don't enter and we return to the situation we had before," Foreign Minister Ana Palacio said.

Click here for a map of the area

The rocky island, hardly larger than a football pitch - which Morocco calls Leila - has belonged to Spain since 1668, although it has been uninhabited for the past four decades.

Diplomatic options

Both countries have come under diplomatic pressure to end the crisis by talks rather action on the ground.

Spanish troops on Perejil
Spanish troops moved on to the island on Wednesday
Deputy US Secretary of State Richard Armitage spoke to Spanish and Moroccan officials by telephone overnight to try to lessen tensions.

"We are trying to help the parties, our friends on both sides, work this out in a peaceful manner," said a US spokesman.

At the United Nations, Secretary General Kofi Annan said he was ready to help resolve the dispute.

Ms Palacio has rejected offers of international mediation, saying the issue was not complicated enough.

"Perejil is such a clear cut problem... mediation is needed in very complex issues," she told the BBC.

She said that once troops had been withdrawn from the islet, the two countries could carry out joint operations to counter drugs smuggling and illegal immigration.

Morocco had said it sent the troops to Perejil as part of efforts to crack down on those problems.

Eviction

Spanish forces moved onto the island in the early hours of Wednesday, seizing control back from a dozen Moroccan soldiers who had set up camp on the island on 11 July.

The eviction took place without any casualties, according to a statement from the office of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.

Perejil island
200m off the Moroccan shore in the Straits of Gibraltar
Less than 1km in diameter
Rocky and uninhabited
Visited by herdsmen who take their goats to graze
Named after the wild parsley which grows there - Perejil means "parsley" in Spanish
Known in Morocco as Leila
Despite a military build-up in the area, Spain had given no prior public warning that the Moroccan troops might be removed by force.

Six Moroccans were taken prisoner and moved to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, just five kilometres (three miles) from the island, but they were repatriated a few hours later.

Two Spanish flags were then put up in place of the Moroccan one that the troops had raised.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Mohammed Benaissa said the Spanish action was "an ignoble act which amounts to an act of war".

His Spanish opposite number said that once all troops had been withdrawn, Madrid was ready to discuss anything except the status of Ceuta and Melilla, the two Spanish enclaves on the North African coast.

"I insist (there are) things that can be discussed and Ceuta and Melilla cannot be discussed," said Ms Palacio.

There are concerns in Spain that the dispute over Perejil could be a prelude to Moroccan demands for a full Spanish withdrawal.



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 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jonathan Charles reports
"Angry Moroccans think this is worth fighting for"
Ana Palacio, Spanish Foreign Minister
"Spain does not want to remain on Perejil"

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18 Jul 02 | Europe
18 Jul 02 | Europe
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