Gibraltar visit for Royal Navy's HMS Westminster

The arrival of HMS Westminster is a "symbolic moment" given the current dispute, as Tom Burridge reports

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Royal Navy warship HMS Westminster has docked in Gibraltar, a day after Spanish fishermen protested off the British territory about a concrete reef put there by its government.

Its visit is part of a long-planned deployment of a number of vessels to the Mediterranean and the Gulf.

It has arrived at a sensitive moment for British-Spanish relations.

Spanish fishermen say the reef hampers their right to fish. Gibraltar says they should not be fishing there.

HMS Westminster, a Type 23 frigate, is accompanied by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships Lyme Bay and Mounts Bay.

Gibraltarians waving union jacks gathered on the quayside to watch HMS Westminster come in.

Spanish fishermen gather at La Linea Port ahead of the protest Spanish fishermen, and the Gibraltarian and Spanish police, weaved among each other on Sunday

Andrea Jones, 46, works for an online gaming company and has lived in Gibraltar for 12 years.

"I think the Gibraltarians are a bit more passionate at this moment in time," she said. "We are used to Spain being disgruntled about one thing or another. This time they have taken it that little step further."

Retired Royal Gibraltar Police officer Michael Sanchez, 53, said he would like to see British warships off Gibraltar more often.

"It is getting to be out of control, it is not a spat any more," he said. "It's a normal deployment but we need bigger assets to show them."

'Breach the cordon'

HMS Westminster and the two support vessels form part of a task force - called Cougar 13 - of four Royal Navy warships and six other vessels which set sail for the Mediterranean from Portsmouth and Plymouth last week.

The ships are scheduled to dock at various ports in the Mediterranean en route to the Middle East, with one warship visiting the Spanish naval base at Rota near Cadiz.

Chief Minister of Gibraltar Fabian Picardo: "I'm hopeful common sense will prevail."

The Ministry of Defence said Cougar 13 would see the ships carry out exercises with "a number of key allies".

The Royal Gibraltar Police said Sunday's protest by "about 38 Spanish fishing boats and seven or eight pleasure craft" lasted for about an hour.

Chief Inspector Castle Yates said that, when the boats crossed into Gibraltarian waters, police and the Royal Navy set up a cordon and "corralled" them.

"They tried to breach the cordon several times but they were not successful," he said.

The Spanish government has accused Gibraltar of creating the reef, which consists of 70 concrete blocks, "without the necessary authorisation" in "waters that are not theirs".

It has said that, in building the reef - which is located off the western end of Gibraltar Airport's runway - Gibraltar is contravening environmental laws and damaging Spain's fishing industry.

Map showing Gibraltar and Rota

Spanish fishing nets are in danger of catching on the concrete reef blocks, it says.

But Britain has said it was trying to encourage sea-life to flourish.

In response, Spain has imposed tougher checks at the border in recent weeks, leading to lengthy delays. It said the checks were necessary to tackle tobacco smuggling.

Britain, meanwhile, has accused Spain of breaking EU free movement rules.

Spain disputes UK sovereignty over Gibraltar, a limestone outcrop near the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula, which has been ruled by Britain since 1713.

In recent years the dispute has taken the form of a clash over fishing rights. Both Spain and Gibraltar have claimed jurisdiction over the waters off the Rock, and both sides have complained about incursions into what they claim are their waters.

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