Spanish fishermen sail in protest at Gibraltar reef
A Spanish protest fleet of 38 fishing boats sailed towards Gibraltar on Sunday to demand the British outpost remove 70 concrete blocks it has dropped in their fishing grounds.
British naval and Gibraltar police patrols blocked the Spanish boats from entering disputed waters around the concrete reef, which has sparked an angry row between London and Madrid.
Britain accuses Spain of retaliating over the reef by imposing excessive customs checks at the border to Gibraltar, leading to daily, hours-long queues of cars.
The Spanish fishermen from the nearby ports of La Linea de la Concepcion and Algeciras set sail on calm waters across the narrow strait, accompanied by a half dozen Spanish police patrols.
The Spanish fleet approached a cordon set up by a total of 14 British naval and Gibraltar vessels, manoeuvring in close quarters but then turning back with no incident reported beyond an exchange of insults.
About 500 people watched from the shores of Gibraltar, many waving Gibraltar and British flags. Spanish spectators gathered in the port of La Linea de la Concepcion, some with Spanish flags and T-shirts reading "Gibraltar is Spanish".
"We just want to send a message to Gibraltar," said Leoncio Fernandez, the head of the La Linea fishermen's guild. "All we want is to fish where we have always fished."
The Gibraltar government says the reef will regenerate marine life and that the few Spanish fishermen who raked there for shellfish did so illegally under Gibraltar law.
Spanish fishermen, however, say the concrete blocks -- dropped into the sea last month without consultation -- have cut them off from rich fishing grounds and lowered their already meagre incomes.
A total of 14 vessels from the Gibraltar police, customs and port authority and the Royal Navy monitored the protest.
"The paramount issue was safety," said an Gibraltar police spokesman. "When you're working at sea in such close quarters, it can be very dangerous."
It is the latest in a string of diplomatic rows over the self-governing British overseas territory, which measures just 6.8 square kilometres (2.6 square miles) and is home to about 30,000 people.
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.
© 2013 AFP