HMS Westminster sails in after Gibraltar confrontation

Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson. Pictute: LPhot Ioan Roberts

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The Portsmouth-based warship HMS Westminster has arrived at Gibraltar for a scheduled visit ahead of exercises in the Mediterranean.

The long-planned arrival of the Type 23 frigate comes the day after more than 40 commercial Spanish boats staged a protest over a controversial reef that has sparked a diplomatic row between Britain and Spain and retaliatory delays at the border with the British Overseas Territory.

Gibraltarians wave Union Flags to show their British patriotic support as HMS Westminster arrives in the harbour at Gibraltar. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

Gibraltarians wave Union Flags to show their British patriotic support as HMS Westminster arrives in the harbour at Gibraltar. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

Westminster is visiting ahead of the Cougar 13 wargames, which also include the helicopter carrier HMS Illustrious and the flagship HMS Bulwark.

A Spanish Guardia Civil patrol boat passed close to the military area of Gibraltar harbour not long after HMS Westminster arrived this morning.

The Spanish boat passed outside the harbour walls in Gibraltar Bay before speeding off when a police launch approached it.

The Spaniards made an illegal incursion into British waters around the rock yesterday, led by a group of around 38 fishing boats plus a small number of pleasure craft.

They were “corralled” by Royal Gibraltar Police, customs and military vessels close to an artificial reef created by the government of the British Overseas Territory.

Tensions between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar’s dropping of concrete blocks to the sea floor, creating a reef, have escalated during the last fortnight.

Spain says it was done to disrupt its fishing fleet.

Gibraltar says it was necessary to protect local fish stocks and that only one Spanish vessel was fishing the area before the reef was created.

The arrival of HMS Westminster, a type 23 frigate, is not part of Britain’s response to the growing row.

The vessel left Portsmouth naval base in Hampshire six days ago to join nine other vessels taking part in the pre-planned international training exercise in the Mediterranean and Gulf.

Cougar 13 is a long-planned deployment involving four Royal Navy warships, the lead commando group from 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines and elements of naval air squadrons.

Yesterday’s protest prompted calls for renewed efforts, involving the European Union, to solve the diplomatic dispute which has seen Madrid introduce additional checks at the border in protest, leaving workers and tourists facing hours in queues to get through.

A diplomatic spat between Britain and Spain erupted when the Spaniards introduced additional checks at the border, suggesting that a 50-euro (£43.30) fee could be imposed on every vehicle entering or leaving Gibraltar through its fenced border with Spain.

On Friday Prime Minister David Cameron raised the imposition of the extra checks with European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso.

In a telephone call, he underlined Britain’s belief that the checks were “politically motivated and disproportionate” and therefore contrary to the EU right of free movement.

The Spanish flotilla, which set out from the Campo de Gibraltar close to the British territory off the country’s south coast, claim the reef restricts their right to fish.

Locals waving Union flags gathered on the quayside to watch HMS Westminster come in.

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

She said the frigate’s arrival was “a two-fingered salute towards Spain”.

“I think the Gibraltarians are tending to be a bit more passionate at this moment in time,” she said.

“We are constantly used to Spain being disgruntled about one thing or another. This time I think they have taken it that little step further and put more border queues on, they have been more stringent.

“They have been quite nasty, to be quite honest.”

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.

“If you park something out there grey (a warship) for a couple of days you can see them (the Spanish) calm down.

“I know that, I have seen it, I have worked for 33 years in the police force, I have seen it before.”

He added: “These guys need to be taught a lesson.

“It is no good having (William) Hague, (David) Cameron sending protests galore. You have got to stick your nose in there, your face into their face. If not they just get away with it.”