By James Bryce
THE Royal Navy has been forced to intervene in the fishing row between Gibraltar and Spain following a tense standoff lasting several hours on Wednesday night.
The military vessel was scrambled to intercept a number of Spanish boats attempting to fish in disputed waters close to the Rock, escorted by the Guardia Civil and a helicopter.
Repeated warnings to leave the area were ignored by the Spaniards, in an incident condemned by the British government as an ‘illegal incursion’.
“We call on all parties to the fishing dispute to show restraint and work towards a swift and peaceful resolution,” a government spokesman said.
“We welcome the constructive approach adopted by the La Linea fishermen and the Government of Gibraltar.”
He added: “The UK protests about all illegal Spanish incursions and will do so in this case.”
Gibraltar’s government slammed officials in Madrid for what it described as a ‘carefully premeditated challenge to our indisputable sovereignty’.
“Those who are orchestrating these dangerous confrontations need to come to their senses and accept the challenge, once and for all, to litigate their claims to our territory in the relevant international tribunals established for that purpose in the 21st century and not put people’s safety and security at risk trying to advance their position out at sea as if in the 18th century,” a statement said.
Spanish environment minister Miguel Arias Canete had earlier come out in support of the Spanish fishermen’s right to fish in Gibraltar waters.
“The Government has told the fishermen that they can fish because the waters are not Gibraltar’s and that therefore they have the full backing of the Government,” he said.
The row comes just days before Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo is due to meet British Foreign Secretary William Hague in London.
Margallo is expected to urge his British counterpart to return to the 1999 fishing agreement, which allowed a set quota of Spanish fishermen to work in Gibraltar waters.
He also confirmed he would raise the issue of bilateral sovereignty talks, although Hague is expected to reaffirm the British stance that there will be no agreement without the consent of Gibraltar’s residents.