Gibraltar police ‘push out’ Spanish fishing boats during reef protest

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Spanish fishermen stage Gibraltar artificial reef protest

Spanish fishermen sailed into Gibraltar’s waters to stage a protest over an artificial reef that prevents them from fishing, the latest move in an escalating diplomatic row over the territory.

Fiona Govan

By , Madrid

3:18PM BST 18 Aug 2013

The protest by some 30 fishing vessels from La Linea de la Conception came a day before a British warship docks in Gibraltar’s port.

The Spanish fishing boats accompanied by Spanish Guardia Civil vessels were met by a Royal Gibraltar Police patrol, which cordoned off their path. They were protesting about a new artificial reef that they claim is a risk to their boats, construction of which sparked the latest diplomatic spat over the Rock’s sovereignty.

British police boats patrol the coastline off La Linea de la Concepcion near the Rock of Gibraltar (AP)

Chief Inspector Castle Yates, of the Royal Gibraltar Police, said the Spanish boats crossed into Gibraltar’s waters before being “pushed” out again.

“At around 9am about 38 Spanish fishing boats and seven or eight pleasure craft converged in the area of the western anchorage,” he said.

“We had our own police cordon along with Royal Navy and other assets and we corralled them. They tried to breach the cordon several times but they were not successful.”

The fishing fleet had pledged to try and remove the concrete blocks that form the reef, but at the last minute admitted they did not have the means available to achieve their aim.

Spanish fishermen gather in their fishing boats during a protest in the Bay of Algeciras (Reuters)

Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar’s chief minister, thanked the British authorities for their help. Mr Picardo, who has been the target of a campaign of online abuse because of his staunch opposition to Spain’s sovereignty claim, wrote on Twitter: “Big thank you also to Royal Navy, Gib Defence Police, HM Customs and Port Authority for their deployment too.

The fishermen are at the centre of the latest row over the British Overseas Territory, claiming their livelihoods have been destroyed by the creation of an artificial reef off the Rock.

Gibraltar authorities sunk 70 concrete blocks late last month with a view to preventing fishing in the area for environmental reasons and to boost stocks.

They claim that in fact only one boat regularly fished in the area and that it used illegal dragging methods to harvest shellfish in a protected zone.

Since the reef was created Spain has imposed stringent checks to traffic crossing the border, a move that Downing Street has said is “disproportionate and politically motivated”.

On Friday, Prime Minister David Cameron called EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to raise “serious concerns” over the delays caused at the border and to urge a monitoring group to be dispatched to the area.

Spain insists the border checks are essential in their fight against tobacco smuggling and money laundering and have pledged to use all legal means necessary to protect national interests.

HMS Illustrious docks in Spain’s Rota naval base, which is near the Strait of Gibraltar in south-west Spain (AFP/Getty Images)

Royal Navy warship HMS Westminster and two auxiliary vessels will arrive in Gibraltar on Monday morning. The visit is described by the Ministry of Defence as “long planned” and “routine”, but in the current political climate the trio of vessels are expected to be welcomed by crowds of flag-waving Gibraltarians.

Their presence in the bay will do little to calm tensions over the 300 year sovereignty dispute. Locals have reported a spate of anti-Gibraltarian incidents in recent days. Two Gibraltar-plated cars were torched while parked in the town La Linea over the weekend.

Chief Inspector Ricard Ullger, of the Royal Gibraltar Police, who described the attacks as “most concerning”. said: “There have been a number of sporadic incidents involving damage being inflicted over Gibraltar vehicles in Spain.”

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