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Thursday, 18 July, 2002, 15:47 GMT 16:47 UK
Small island, big problem
Moroccan child looks out to the island of Perejil
The dispute has led to a breakdown in the countries' relations

There is bemusement around the world that a small and usually uninhabited rocky outcrop just off the Moroccan coast has been at the centre of global attention in recent days.


Diplomatic ways are not working; the only way is soft military action and I think that is what they have done

Spanish citizen
And it is not so different in Spain, the country at the heart of the crisis.

But a day after Spanish troops moved on to Perejil and ousted the Moroccan soldiers who had been there for nearly a week, the universal view in Spain seems to be that this stand-off has been about much more than the fate of a football field-sized island.

And that goes for both supporters and critics of the Spanish action.

On the streets of Madrid praise for the eviction of the Moroccans seems to be much more common than condemnation.

This kind of reaction was typical: "I think the Spanish action has been very correct," one person said.

"Diplomatic ways are not working; the only way is soft military action and I think that is what they have done."

Moroccan provocation?

There are those who believe Spain overreacted to the Moroccan soldiers turning up on the island.

Spanish soldiers put up their flag on Perejil after expelling Moroccan soldiers
Spanish newspapers doubted whether all diplomatic means had been exhausted
"I think the action may be right but it was certainly exaggerated," said 24-year-old student Andrea Aguilar.

"Such a display is not justified by the threat or danger of six Moroccan soldiers."

But an opposition politician, Jose Manuel Fernandez of the Izquierda Unida (United Left) party, was much more critical.

He suggested that Morocco had intended to provoke Spain by putting a handful of soldiers on Perejil and the Spanish Government had walked into the trap by sending in troops of its own.

And anyone turning to the editorial page of the leading newspaper El Pais on Thursday would have seen the headline "Clean Operation, Uncertain Exit".

The paper doubted whether all diplomatic avenues had been exhausted when the military operation was launched, and it said it could not see that Spain had any long-term strategy to extract itself from the crisis.

Contentious issues

The common factor in most of the reaction is a feeling that this was a flare-up waiting to happen.

Moroccan child aims slingshot at Spanish warship patrolling near Perejil island
It remains unclear how the present tensions over the island will be resolved

There are various issues over which Spain and Morocco have been in contention, including fishing rights, illegal immigration into Spain and drug trafficking.

Many here are also suspicious about Morocco's intentions towards the Spanish North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, far more strategically important than Perejil.

Some see the events of the past week as a further symbol of the breakdown of trust between Spain and Morocco, and many feel that crucial repair work needs to be done to the wider relationship.

'Gunboat diplomacy'

Mr Fernandez fears a rise in xenophobia in Spain against Moroccans if the differences are not tackled.

As for Perejil, he has an unconventional diplomatic proposal, arguing the island should be handed over to the goats who use it periodically for grazing.

For now it is a very different kind of diplomacy that is prevailing, the diplomacy of the gunboat.

The Spanish flag now flutters over Perejil, not the Moroccan, but even in Spain few are willing to hazard a guess as to how the present crisis will eventually be resolved.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jonathan Charles
"The island is not much bigger than a football pitch"
Ana Palacio, Spanish Foreign Minister
"Spain does not want to remain in the Perejil islands"

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