Spanish forces ousted six Moroccan soldiers from a disputed island off Morocco's Mediterranean coast yesterday in a bloodless raid promptly denounced by Rabat as an act of aggression. In a pre-dawn swoop, 28 members of a Spanish special forces team dropped from helicopters onto the tiny island, headed for the outcrop's summit and used megaphones to demand the Moroccans' surrender, Spanish authorities said. The Arab League urged Spain to withdraw its forces and return the island, known in Spanish as Perejil, (Parsley) to its former status, while the European Union, which had previously denounced the Moroccan deployment as a “violation of Spanish territory”, called for a diplomatic solution and did not endorse the Spanish action. Spain, whose southern coast is Europe's closest point to Africa, said its operation was in self defence after Rabat tested already strained relations with Madrid by setting up camp on Perejil and raising its flag on the uninhabited rock, known as Leila in Morocco. “Spain was attacked by force in a very sensitive part of its geography,” Spanish Defence Minister Federico Trillo said yesterday. “In military terms, we are talking about a clear case of legitimate defence.” The importance of the tiny island extends far beyond its 300 by 500 metres (yards). Perejil, which lies just 200 metres off Morocco's Mediterranean coast, is only six km (four miles) from Spain's North African enclave of Ceuta, long coveted by Rabat. Recent talks between Britain and Spain on the future of the disputed British colony of Gibraltar have prompted comparisons by Rabat, which would like to absorb Ceuta and its sister Spanish enclave Melilla. Foreign Minister Ana Palacio said Spain intended to remove its troops as soon as possible, but insisted on a return to the position before Morocco's five-day occupation, when neither side had actively pressed a claim to the rocky island. “Spain has no interest in keeping a military presence on Perejil, but wishes to return without delay to the situation before July 11 when Morocco occupied the island,” she said, later adding she had spoken to her Moroccan counterpart. But Morocco looked unlikely to accept Spain's position. “Confronted with this aggression, the Moroccan Kingdom demands, before anything else, the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Spanish armed forces from Leila island, which is an integral part of Moroccan territory,” it said. Morocco won qualified backing from the Arab League. “The secretary-general (Amr Moussa) calls on Spain to withdraw its forces and enter urgent talks with Morocco and he stressed the need for the islet to return to its former situation,” the Cairo-based group said in a statement. Soon after the pre-dawn swoop, Spain's yellow and red national colours could be seen flying over the disputed island, while bemused Moroccans, buffeted by strong winds in the early morning sunshine, looked on from neighbouring clifftops. Three Spanish naval ships and a small civil guard boat patrolled nearby. The six Moroccans on the rocky island - whose name in Spanish comes from the wild parsley growing on its slopes - were quickly sent back to Morocco. In Brussels, European Commission President Romano Prodi failed to endorse Spain's military action, expressing concern and repeating his call for talks and a diplomatic solution. NATO, which has stood behind Spain during the dispute in calling for Morocco to withdraw, said only it was pleased “the status quo ante has been restored”. Spain, which says it wants to patch up rapidly deteriorating relations with Rabat, recalled its ambassador late on Tuesday, but despite a military build-up since Morocco took over the island, it gave no public warning of military action. On the streets of Madrid, people backed Spain's action. “If they don't want to talk there's no alternative to using force. We've got to be tough like the English or the Americans,” said Monica, a banker. Morocco had said the camp was an observation post to tackle illegal migration and terrorism in the 20 km (12 mile) Strait of Gibraltar separating Spain and North Africa, adding it set up the post “after receiving information about illegal activities”. Locals say a cave on the island is used as a drop-off point by drug runners, and both Spanish and Moroccan police have chased suspected criminals there. Spanish-Moroccan relations have been under increasing strain since Morocco recalled its ambassador to Spain in October over differences tied mainly to illegal immigration, a fishing accord with the European Union and the issue of the Western Sahara. The international community supports a referendum in Morocco-controlled Western Sahara where the Polisario Front fought a sporadic guerrilla war for 15 years until a U.N.-brokered ceasefire in 1991. Madrid has repeatedly said it favours a U.N. solution for the conflict, declining to support either party. Spain is Morocco's second biggest trading partner after France with commerce worth over $1.0 billion, and a leading source of foreign investment. Rabat says Perejil, used by locals to graze goats, is part of its territory. Spain has stopped short of claiming sovereignty but has demanded a return to the “status quo”, something it appeared to have ignored by hoisting its own flag.


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