Spanish troops depart islet near Morocco

Under U.S.-brokered deal, two countries agree neither will occupy Perejil


BEL YOUNECH, Morocco - Hundreds of cheering and jeering Moroccans watched last night as Spanish troops withdrew from the disputed Mediterranean islet of Perejil, after the United States brokered a deal under which Spain and Morocco agreed that neither side would occupy the uninhabited rock.

"Thanks be to God!" roared a crowd of jubilant Moroccans perched on a cliff top above Perejil, known in Arabic as Leila. "They have lowered the flag!" cried one man in excitement, as army helicopters ferried Spanish legionnaires off the island to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, five miles to the east.

"Now we feel free," said Mohamed, a fisherman from the village of Bel Younech, which sits between Perejil, only 200 yards from the Moroccan coast, and Ceuta. "We hope things will go back to the way they were now, the island neither ours nor theirs."

Local fishermen, who describe the waters around Perejil as "a gold mine," have been unable to work around the island for the past few days. Drug traffickers and people smugglers, who ply their trade in the Strait of Gibraltar between the Spanish mainland and Morocco, have also been forced to take a few days off.

The agreement, announced last night, ends a 10-day crisis that began when Morocco sent gendarmes to Perejil, a landmass 300 yards long inhabited only by goats, ostensibly to act against smugglers operating along Morocco's northern coast close to Ceuta.

Madrid, which has seen relations with Rabat deteriorate during the past year, described the deployment as a hostile occupation and sent troops to oust the Moroccans in a bloodless raid Wednesday.

"The two sides have agreed to restore the situation regarding the island that existed prior to July 2002," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in a statement yesterday. "We believe this understanding is in the interests of both countries, and can serve as the basis for further steps in improving their bilateral relations."

Spain's foreign minister, Ana Palacio, is to meet her Moroccan counterpart, Mohamed Benaissa, in Rabat tomorrow for talks. It is not clear what issues will be covered.

Powell spoke several times by telephone to Palacio and to King Mohamed VI of Morocco on Friday and yesterday in an attempt to persuade the two nations, both American allies, to end the dispute. The Spanish news media quoted a State Department spokesperson as saying Powell had intervened because he feared that a dangerous situation might develop in the region.

As news of the agreement broke before sunset yesterday, hundreds of Moroccans gathered on a cliff above Perejil. Youths hurled stones each time a Spanish Civil Guard launch motored past or a helicopter flew low over the sea.

The crisis over Perejil has highlighted several touchy issues between the two nations, including fishing rights. Spain and Morocco have also clashed repeatedly over the flow of illegal immigrants from Africa to Europe, oil exploration and the fate of Western Sahara, annexed by Morocco and claimed by the Saharawi people.

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