A Royal Navy warship used a routine logistical visit to Gibraltar on Wednesday to patrol British waters around the Rock. The highly unusual move came a day after an incursion by a Spanish Navy vessel and against the background of diplomatic tension between the UK and Spain over the waters row.
It was flagged up by the Ministry of Defence in Gibraltar, which issued a statement early in the morning saying HMS Sutherland was conducting “routine maritime security patrols” in British Gibraltar territorial waters.
The patrol was further bolstered by the presence in the air of the Type 23 frigate’s Merlin helicopter, which flew over the waters on the east side of the Rock and the bay.
The ship had been scheduled to call at Gibraltar for stores and fuel on its way home to Devonport after anti-piracy duties in the Indian Ocean. But before nipping into port, it was ordered to steam slowly in British waters and make its presence felt.
After its morning patrol, HMS Sutherland docked at the naval base to carry out its logistics operation before sailing from the Rock a few hours later.
On its way out, it took a slow course from the base to the northern end of the bay and then down the median line toward the Strait of Gibraltar.
Despite recent terse exchanges with Spain over Gibraltar waters, Britain is unlikely to bolster its permanent naval presence here. Any response to Spain’s efforts to exert control in Gibraltar waters will focus primarily on legal and political initiatives.
But Wednesday’s patrols by HMS Sutherland indicate that the UK will also maximise any scheduled visit by Royal Navy ships to stamp its mark out at sea.
Short-lived or otherwise, the presence of HMS Sutherland drew a welcome response on the social networks.
The visit by HMS Sutherland came as the British Government revealed that the number of incursions by Spanish state vessels into British Gibraltar territorial waters this year will top 200.
Andrew Robathan, Britain’s Minister of State for the Armed Forces, told the House of Commons that there had already been 197 incursions between January 1 and November 30 this year. That compared to 67 “unlawful incursions” in 2010 and 23 in 2011, he said.
“One of the Ministry of Defence’s roles in Gibraltar is to help maintain the United Kingdom’s sovereignty over British Gibraltar territorial waters,” Mr Robathan said in response to a parliamentary question this week.
“In support of this, the Royal Navy challenges unlawful maritime incursions.” “These challenges are subsequently pursued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office through formal diplomatic protests to the Spanish Government”.
Meanwhile Chief Minister Fabian Picardo has said that the Gibraltar Government is set to try and persuade the British Government to claim the full twelve nautical miles of territorial sea around Gibraltar under the rules of 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS.
British Gibraltar Territorial Waters presently extend to just three miles, used by most countries until UNCLOS set a new, 12-mile standard. The revelation was made at the Direct Democracy program screened on GBC.
CM Picardo also confirmed that the final report commissioned by the Gibraltar Government in relations to fishing in Gibraltar waters is now on his desk and to be made public shortly