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Gibraltar: British could have fired on Spanish police launch

Published on 12/12/2009

Gibraltar - A Spanish police launch that strayed into Gibraltar could have come under fire, causing a "horrendous" situation, the commander of British forces in the territory said Thursday.

Police in Gibraltar late Monday detained four members of Spain’s Civil Guard police force who had chased two suspected drug smugglers into the territorial waters of the disputed promontory off Spain’s southern tip.

The commander, Commodore Adrian Bell, said two unidentified boats heading to a naval base at high speed at night would have met with an anti-terror response had they strayed into the "Admiralty waters" around the nearby naval base.

"Boats behaving in that fashion could be regarded as hostile," he said. "I do have armed personnel with rules of engagement which would have allowed them to fire.

"Such a situation would have been horrendous. I count it as a blessing that they did not come into Admiralty waters."

Gibraltar authorities held the four officers for two hours and retained their firearms, freeing them only after Spain’s Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba telephoned Gibraltar’s chief minister, Peter Caruana.

Madrid on Tuesday apologised to Gibraltar over the incursion, which Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said was "done in the heat of the moment."

Police in Gibraltar released the two suspected smugglers after fining them GBP 5,000 (EUR 5,500) each for illegally importing a motor launch. No drugs were found.

Spanish media have reported that confrontations between the Royal Navy and Spain’s Civil Guard have been on the rise for several months in the waters around Gibraltar.

Last month Britain apologised to Spain after a Royal Navy ship shot at a buoy bearing the colours of the Spanish flag during a military exercise just off the Gibraltar coast.

Spain does not recognise any waters off Gibraltar as belonging to the British territory, apart from the territory’s ports.

Madrid points to the wording of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht — under which Gibraltar was given up — which says the "rock" was ceded to London for ever.

But Britain claims sovereignty over a strip of water measuring three nautical miles surrounding the territory, as it does with any other territory.

Gibraltar has long fuelled tensions between Spain and Britain, with Madrid arguing it should be returned to Spanish sovereignty.

London has said it will not renounce sovereignty of the territory against the wishes of Gibraltarians.