British Navy ship fires ‘warning’ flares at unarmed Spanish vessel in standoff near Gibraltar

Angeles Alvarino © ieo.es
A Royal Navy patrol boat fired flares at a Spanish vessel off Gibraltar after it attempted to drop a sonar buoy for conducting geological research in British waters.

The tense maritime standoff came amid suspicions that the Spanish authorities had directed the oceanographic vessel, the Angeles Alvarino, to investigate the seabed in the Bay of Gibraltar and use the results of the research to question the UK’s jurisdiction over the area.

Angeles Alvarino anchored in British waters near Gibraltar and attempted to drop a sonar buoy, the Telegraph reported on Sunday.

The HMS Sabre, a Royal Navy patrol boat, was scrambled to stop Alvarino. It fired three flares after failing to establish radio contact with the Spanish vessel, which left British waters shortly after the warning.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said in a statement that “the Royal Navy challenges all unlawful maritime incursions into British Gibraltar territorial waters,” adding that the UK will deliver a formal diplomatic protest to the Spanish government.

Gibraltar’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, has accused the Spanish sailors of “reckless disregard for safety,” while John Cortes, the Minister for the Environment, asserted that Alvarino’s mission had nothing to do with oceanographic research.

“It hurts to see scientists being forced / tricked into playing dangerous games, falsely in the name of science,” he wrote on his Twitter account.

Gibraltar is an important territory on Spain’s southern tip that has been governed by the British since the 18th century. It is also at the heart of a jurisdictional row between the two NATO and EU allies. The city, with its population of around 30,000 people, effectively controls the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea.

Apart from its strategic importance, Gibraltar is also known for four main sectors, which dominate its local economy, namely financial services, online gambling, shipping, and tourism, which includes retail sales to visitors.

Whereas Madrid is pushing for joint administration of Gibraltar, London refuses to discuss the sovereignty issue without the consent of the local population.

The Gibraltarians rejected the proposal for Spanish sovereignty in a 2002 referendum, when 98.97 percent said ‘No’ to the question: “Do you approve of the principle that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar?”

However, following the UK vote to leave the EU in June, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, the acting Foreign Minister of Spain at the time, said that the referendum results had paved the way for a Spanish flag to fly over Gibraltar once more. In turn, some military experts called on the British Royal Navy to increase its visible presence in Gibraltar waters. 

In his UN General Assembly speech in September, Spanish King Felipe VI urged Britain “to end the colonial anachronism of Gibraltar with an agreed solution between both countries.”

The British overseas territory was quick to fire back, accusing the Spanish monarch of being “stuck in the 18th century” and not coming to terms with having lost Gibraltar over three centuries ago.

“This is not 1704, when Britain conquered Gibraltar, or 1713, when Spain ceded it by treaty forever. This is 2016, when what matters most is the right of a people, however small, to determine their own future,” a spokesman for Gibraltar’s government said.