Drivers were forced to queue for hours in blistering heat as Spain tightened its border controls with Gibraltar in the wake of the standoff at sea on Thursday.
The tailback on Friday and Saturday hit Gibraltarians, Spaniards and tourists alike, forcing the Royal Gibraltar Police to recall personnel to implement diversions, beachside holding areas and distribution of drinking water.
The standstill came after British and Spanish diplomats exchanged words over Thursday’s events at sea in the Bay of Gibraltar. A spokesman for the Foreign Office confirmed Britain’s protest to Spain over the actions of Spanish Guardia Civil vessels at sea trying to prevent a local tug from dumping concrete blocks to lay an artificial reef in Gibraltar waters which in effect means the end to trawling by ‘intruding’ Spanish fishing vessels.
In turn, Spain’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs confirmed that its director general for foreign policy, Ignacio Ybáñez, had contacted Britain’s ambassador to Madrid, Giles Paxman, to complain about the reef and restate Spain’s position on the ‘disputed’ waters.
Chief Minister Fabian Picardo slammed the Spanish tactic of using the border to exert pressure on Gibraltar to the detriment of normal people. “It’s a typical, childish reaction from Spain,” he said.
The queues were caused by extreme checks by Guardia Civil officers at the border post. For hour after hour, every single car was being stopped and pulled over by the Spanish officers. Motorbike riders were also being checked one at a time.
The major operation involving Gibraltar police and Royal Navy vessels was to prevent Spanish fishermen and the Guardia Civil from hampering work to lay the artificial reef in Gibraltar waters.
The police and naval vessels created a maritime cordon around the Gibraltar tug Eliott and the barge MHB Dole as dozens of purpose-built concrete blocks were dumped into the sea. But there was high tension on the sea, particularly on Friday morning when the Guardia Civil vessel Rio Tormes carried out a high-speed manoeuvre close to the tug.
The Spanish launch weaved through British vessels and swerved to create a large wake, despite attempts to cut it off.
That initial incident late Thursday morning was followed by chaotic scenes as two Spanish fishing boats – the Alejandro and the Divina Providencia – sailed dangerously close to the barge as it continued to lay blocks.
By this time there were three Guardia Civil boats at the scene, the Rio Tormes, the Rio Cedeña and a rigid-hull inflatable boat. The Royal Gibraltar Police, the Gibraltar Defence Police and the Royal Navy’s Gibraltar Squadron had seven boats there in total. There was a frenzy of activity as the British vessels tried to prevent the fishermen from approaching and the Guardia Civil tried to shield them, creating a volatile and potentially dangerous situation.
The Gibraltar Government said the reef would encourage marine life and help regenerate the seabed. But in marking the boundary of British Gibraltar territorial waters in that area, the line of cement blocks will also stop Spanish fishermen from raking the seabed for conch in breach of Gibraltar laws.