Madrid and Rabat are already at odds over illegal immigration

Spanish and Moroccan officials tried to play down tensions yesterday after Morocco set up a military post on a tiny, disputed islet near Spain's North African enclave of Ceuta. While Madrid has sent gunboats, submarines and attack helicopters to protect territory it controls along Morocco's Mediterranean coast, Spain's new Foreign Minister Ana Palacio tried to calm the situation. “One cannot talk about an invasion here, and it does not help anyone to let things get out of hand,” she told newspaper ABC in an interview published yesterday. While Madrid has so far fallen short of claiming full sovereignty over the rocky, uninhabited island of Perejil, Palacio reiterated the Spanish government's demands for “a return to the status quo” before Thursday's occupation of the island by around a dozen Moroccan soldiers. The sighting of a Moroccan patrol boat close to other Spanish-controlled islands on Friday has upped the stakes in a simmering bilateral row. Madrid and Rabat are already at odds over illegal immigration, drug trafficking across the Straits of Gibraltar as well as fishing rights. Moroccan Communications Minister Mohamed Achaari, in an interview with El Pais newspaper, said the Spanish government had ”exaggerated” its reaction to the incident. “There is no reason to create a drama,” he said. “Morocco wants to use an island under its sovereignty in a different manner to fight more efficiently against the trafficking of immigrants and terrorism.” The only visitors to the island, which lies some 200 meters (yards) off the Moroccan coast, were local herdsmen who used it to graze their goats, he said. “We have taken this initiative to improve the fight against a common cause, which interests not only Morocco but Spain as well: to slow maritime emigration and fight terrorist activities in the Straits,” he told the newspaper. Achaari emphasised that Morocco had no interest in other Spanish controlled territories along its coast, such as the Chafarinas islands. Madrid has said the move -- dubbed an invasion by the Spanish media -- contravenes a 1991 treaty on cooperation and friendship. It received swift backing from its European partners, who condemned Moroccan landing on Perejil as a violation of Spanish territory and urged a quick solution.

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