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EU slams Moroccan island invasion

By GARETH HARDING, UPI Europe Correspondent

BRUSSELS, July 15 (UPI) -- The European Union stepped up the pressure on Morocco to withdraw its troops from the disputed Mediterranean island of Perejil on Monday as Spain dispatched submarines, warships and attack helicopters to protect its North African territories.

Moroccan troops raised the national flag over the uninhabited island Thursday, which it calls Leila. The move sparked an immediate outcry from Madrid, which claims the soldiers' presence violates Spain's sovereignty. Madrid is also concerned about the security of its enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, on the coast of North Africa.

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Denmark, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said it was "very concerned over the situation created by Morocco" and expressed its "full solidarity" with Spain. In addition, the EU presidency urged Morocco to immediately withdraw its forces from the barren outcrop.

The European Commission joined in the disapproval Monday, roundly condemning Rabat for its occupation of the island. "The longer the situation lasts, the greater the chance it could have a damaging impact on relations between the EU and Morocco," said commission spokesman Jonathan Faull.

The European Union enjoys close contacts with Morocco. However, relations between Spain and its southern neighbor have soured in recent months.

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In October, Morocco withdrew its ambassador from Madrid after Spain accused the desert kingdom of failing to stem the flow of illegal immigrants crossing the Straits of Gibraltar. Earlier this month, Rabat also expressed its anger at Spanish naval exercises off the North African coast.

The commission urged the two sides to resolve their differences through peaceful means. However, Madrid is running out of patience with Morocco. In an online poll conducted by Spanish daily El Mundo over the weekend, 72 percent of respondents said Spain should take the island by force.

Perejil lies just 220 yards off the coast of Morocco and is no bigger than a soccer field. Until it was seized by a dozen Moroccan troops Thursday, the island's sole occupants were goats and seabirds.

The dozen-odd Moroccan soldiers that arrived on Perejil Thursday set up an observation post to help crack down on illegal immigrants, Rabat has maintained. Morocco does not recognize Spain's claims to it and several other rocky outcroppings between their countries.

Spain does claim control over the islands, however, and have reshuffled its fleet to show Madrid is taking the encroachment seriously. Several warships, submarines reportedly among them, were patrolling the area Monday -- particularly around Ceuta, Spain's enclave just across the Strait of Gibraltar from its mainland, and Melilla, about 155 miles farther to the east on Morocco's coast.

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Spain retained control of Ceuta and Melilla, as it has for centuries, as outlined in a 1956 agreement at the time of Morocco's independence from France.

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