MADRID, July 12: Spain sent gunboats on Friday to protect territory it controls along Morocco’s coast, demanding Rabat withdraw troops occupying a tiny disputed island and putting new strains on already troubled relations.

The sighting of a Moroccan patrol boat close to other Spanish-controlled islands upped the stakes in a rift between Madrid and Rabat, who are at odds over illegal migration, drug trafficking across the Strait of Gibraltar and fishing rights.

Spain won swift backing from its European partners, who condemned Thursday’s landing as a violation of Spanish territory, but refused to get directly involved in the dispute over several Spanish-controlled islands, claimed by Morocco.

Around a dozen Moroccan troops landed on Thursday on the deserted islet of Perejil, close to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta on Morocco’s north coast. It coincided with festivities for Friday’s public wedding in Rabat of King Mohammed.

Spain’s new government spokesman, former Interior Minister Mariano Rajoy, said the move — dubbed an “invasion” by Spanish media — broke a 1991 treaty on cooperation and friendship.

Spain and Morocco have close trading links and some 200,000 Moroccans live in Spain, while a further 1.5 million regularly pass through every summer from other European countries. Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio, called the situation “very serious”, and called for a return to the status quo.

A pro-government Spanish newspaper called King Mohammed a “dictator” and said the island occupation was a “hostile act”.

Morocco said it set up an “observation post” on the islet, which it calls Leila, to fight “terrorism” as well as illegal migration into Europe across the 20-km strait dividing Spain from Africa and the Mediterranean from the Atlantic.

The Spanish Foreign Ministry has said the Moroccans set up camp and raised two Moroccan flags on the island, whose Spanish name translates into English as “parsley”.

A Moroccan Foreign Ministry official, quoted by the official MAP news agency, said the islet was in Moroccan waters.

LONG-RUNNING DISPUTE: The dispute dates back to the end of the colonial era in the 1950s, when France and Spain gave up territory they controlled under an arrangement known as the protectorate.

Under a 1956 agreement, Spain kept the coastal enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, which it had held for centuries. But Morocco strongly disputes Spanish control over several rocky islands.

The Moroccan Foreign Ministry official told MAP that Perejil “was liberated in 1956 at the end of the Spanish protectorate”.

“Moroccan security forces have been deployed on it whenever it has been necessary,” the official added.

Under Ana Palacio’s predecessor, Josep Pique, relations between Rabat and Madrid deteriorated to the point where in October the Moroccan ambassador to Spain was recalled.

No official explanation has been given but relations had worsened over issues such as illegal migration and drug trafficking across the straits and a failure to renew a fisheries accord between Morocco and the European Union.

A long-running dispute in Western Sahara, once a Spanish colony and now controlled by Morocco, has also provided a bone of contention between Madrid and Rabat.

And only this month Morocco summoned the Spanish ambassador after the unexpected deployment of five Spanish warships just 600 metres (yards) off the Mediterranean port of Al Hoceima.

El Mundo newspaper urged Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s centre-right administration not to ignore the “hostile act”, even if Perejil was not worth the fuel needed to send boats to patrol it.

“The King of Morocco has chosen the path of confrontation with one of the great European democracies and this should have a serious cost for him,” the pro-government daily said.—Reuters

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