Saturday, May 23, 2009

Worrying escalation of incidents around Gibraltar territorial waters

Media sources in Gibraltar are reporting yet another incident in a worrying increase of tension around Gibraltar's territorial sovereign waters over the last couple of weeks.

Brian Reyes, writing in today's Chronicle says, yet again, a Guardia Civil patrol boat intercepted a suspected smuggler in Gibraltar waters yesterday. The following is his report:

In doing so, it ignored the usual procedure of informing the Royal Gibraltar Police to take up the chase.

The RGP was alerted to the incident by members of the public and, on reaching the scene, instructed the Guardia Civil to leave the area.

But although the incident comes at a time of tension over Gibraltar's territorial waters, two senior official sources initially suggested it may be overzealous policing by the Spanish officers, rather than a politically-motivated exercise.

The Government said last night it had had an initial report from the RGP in respect of the incident, when there was an incursion by a Guardia Civil launch in Gibraltar territorial waters in the area of Catalan Bay, 'in circumstances which would appear to be unacceptable'.

The Government declared that it takes a 'serious view of this matter and will take such appropriate action as may be required when all aspects of the incident have been investigated and established. '

Gibraltar and Spanish law enforcement agencies cooperate closely to tackle smuggling activity at sea. Guardia Civil vessels regularly sail through Gibraltar waters but do not normally carry out operational tasks without having first contacted the RGP.

What makes yesterday's incident unusual is that the Guardia Civil did not contact the RGP until after the incident had unfolded.

"My gut feeling is that the Guardia Civil officers were just a bit too keen on this one," one senior official said.

The incident has nonetheless generated some concern because it comes exactly two weeks after a Spanish Navy incursion in Gibraltar waters sparked diplomatic tensions.

Yesterday, the suspect launch - a small 'patera', later found to be empty - was chased close to shore in the area of Catalan Bay and eventually ended up beached at the edge of the reclaimed land.

Two men jumped off and fled from the scene. They were still at large as this edition went to press.

The RGP said it received several calls from people in the area while the chase was underway at sea and despatched both land and marine units to the scene.

"The crew on the police launch challenged the Guardia Civil as to their purpose in Gibraltar's territorial waters and told them to leave, which they did without any problem," and RGP spokesman said.

This somewhat surprising and apparent escalation of transgressions into Gibraltar' territorial waters are worrying.

Even the UK National press are now focusing on the issue with Daily Express talking about a "Return of the Armada as Spain ‘invades’ Gibraltar" and the Daily Mail Online today saying that Royal Navy warships have been "dispatched as Spanish invade seas around Gibraltar". I'm not sure what truth there is in that report.

As far as I know, so far, it has been units from the Gibraltar Squadron of the Royal Navy who have effectively dealt with these incursions, including the recent ordering of a Spanish Civil Guard patrol boat to leave Gibraltar waters in the first reported incident.

I'm hoping the 'Senior Official's gut feeling' quoted in the Chronicle report is correct, when he said his "gut feeling is that the Guardia Civil officers were just a bit too keen on this one". Maybe the local units have a new boss, who's keen to stamp his mark. I certainly hope this apparent 'new agenda' is not being directed from Madrid... as if it is, things are a little more serious.

Either way, as I said last Thursday, I very much hope the Guardia Civil and the Spanish authorities, can be 'encouraged' by the UK's Foreign Office and of course the Gibraltar authorities, to reign in whatever agenda they are now manipulating, before these incidents become more serious and someone is hurt through some 'trigger-happy' blunder.

So far, all concerned have been able to show restraint... but I can see how these could easily go awry. Let's hope this can be resolved soon... before someone is hurt and we are having to deal with a much more serious 'international incident'!