Navy exercise off Gibraltar disrupted by Spanish vessel

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A ROYAL Navy training exercise in British-controlled waters around Gibraltar has been disrupted by a Spanish warship.

The British forces parachute training exercise was temporarily suspended while a Gibraltar Squadron patrol boat, HMS Sabre, shadowed the Spanish ship.

The Foreign Office is to issue a ‘formal protest’ following the incursion, which happened on Tuesday at a ‘high level’.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: ’There was an incursion into British waters near Gibraltar by the Spanish Navy on February 18, during a Royal Navy exercise. The exercise went ahead irrespective of this incursion.

‘We are raising this at a high level with the Spanish government and will be issuing a formal protest.

‘Neither this incident nor other incursions change the fact of UK sovereignty over British Gibraltar Territorial Waters.’

According to reports, warnings were issued to the vessel, which is said to have used a fake name and call sign, but it only left after radioing back that it was in Spanish waters.

The Spanish Defence Ministry denied there had been ‘any incident’ between a Spanish navy patrol vessel and the Royal Navy in the area.

The patrol boat ‘was in Spanish waters, and therefore, there has been no incident,’ the ministry said in a statement.

The Foreign Office’s ‘formal protest’ will take the form of a diplomatic letter, according to reports.

Relations have been strained between the two countries since the construction of an artificial reef by the Gibraltan government last year which the Spanish said interfered with their fishermen.

Madrid responded by imposing tighter border controls, leading to long delays at the frontier.

Repeated incursions into Gibraltar’s waters by Spanish state vessels followed, which led to the Spanish ambassador being publicly summoned to the Foreign Office on a number of occasions.

In November, a British diplomatic bag was opened and searched by Spanish Guardia Civil officers on the border with Gibraltar - an incident the Foreign Office described as a ‘serious infringement’ of international diplomatic protocols.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: ‘The Royal Navy patrols and continues to challenge all unlawful incursions into British Gibraltar territorial waters by Spanish state vessels by issuing appropriate warnings.

‘This forms an important part of Her Majesty’s Government’s commitment to uphold our sovereignty against unlawful incursions with a range of proportionate naval, police and diplomatic responses.

‘There should be no doubt that the MoD remains absolutely committed to ensuring the defence and security of Gibraltar, its residents and British Gibraltar territorial waters.’