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UK ship docks in Gibraltar amid Spain row

19 August 2013, 18:01

Gibraltar - British warship HMS Westminster docked in Gibraltar on Monday in a naval exercise coinciding with a furious diplomatic row with Spain over sovereignty and fishing rights in the surrounding waters.

The Type 23 frigate, equipped with a weapons system including a magazine torpedo launcher, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Sea Wolf surface-to-air missiles and helicopter, arrived at the British outpost in the morning.

Though long-planned, the naval visit came at a time of high tension, a day after dozens of Spanish fishing boats sailed to waters around Gibraltar to demand it remove 70 concrete blocks it has dropped in their fishing grounds.

A cordon of British naval and Gibraltar police patrols blocked about 40 Spanish fishing boats from entering far into the disputed waters in Sunday's protest. No incident was reported beyond an exchange of insults between the two sides.

The Gibraltar government says the concrete reef will regenerate marine life and argues that the Spanish raked for shellfish there illegally. The Spaniards say they have been cut off from rich fishing grounds, hurting their livelihoods.

It is the latest in a string of diplomatic rows over the self-governing British overseas territory bordering the tip of Spain, which measures just 6.8km2 and is home to about 30 000 people.

‘Politically motivated’

HMS Westminster sailed in along the boundary of the territorial waters claimed by Britain as it entered port, a so-called sovereignty patrol which is standard practice for visiting British warships.

A handful of Gibraltarians watched from shore as the grey frigate arrived with two auxiliary support vessels, the Lyme Bay and Mounts Bay.

"It is a routine deployment but it couldn't have come at a better time," said one local, Tony Evans, as he stood watching the ships dock at the nearby naval base.

Both Britain and Spain say the naval visits are unrelated to their disagreement over the concrete reef.

Amid the row, Spain has imposed intense customs checks at the land border to Gibraltar, leading to daily hours-long queues of cars.

British Prime Minister David Cameron described the border checks as "politically motivated" and has pressed European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to send observers to the border as soon as possible.

With Madrid's prior agreement, British helicopter and commando carrier HMS Illustrious on Sunday docked at a naval base in Rota in southern Spain for a technical stop of several hours before leading naval exercises in the Mediterranean.

The HMS Westminster and the two support vessels are due to stay in Gibraltar for three days.

They are all taking part in annual naval exercises, codenamed Cougar '13, planned long before the latest row broke out.

The British ships will visit several ports, carrying out an exercise with the Albanian armed forces before heading through the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and the Gulf for exercises with other British allies.

Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in perpetuity in 1713 but has long argued that it should be returned to Spanish sovereignty. London says it will not do so against the wishes of Gibraltarians, who are staunchly pro-British.



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