LA LINEA DE LA CONCEPCION, Spain // Spanish fishermen in some 60 fishing boats yesterday protested against the building of an artificial reef near the disputed British territory of Gibraltar. The construction of the reef has soured relations between Madrid and London.
The fishermen claimed that the reef of about 70 concrete blocks - some with steel rods protruding - could snare and damage their nets, something that has stopped them from fishing there.
"What are we losing? A bay full of seafood," said fisherman Manuel Morente. "That's where we all used to fish and now it's full of blocks."
The protest was monitored by a dozen Spanish and Gibraltan police vessels that prevented the fishing boats from getting near the reef.
Gibraltar's government, led by the chief minister, Fabian Picardo, said the reef protected fish stocks from being over-exploited.
Spain ceded sovereignty of Gibraltar to Britain in 1713 but has persistently sought to regain the tiny southern enclave.
The latest dispute has led to a spike in tensions, and the prime minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, said he would take all legal measures to defend his country's interests.
Among steps taken by Spain are border checks on cars entering and leaving Gibraltar, leading to long queues that can take hours to clear.
Many Spaniards and Gibraltarians who have chosen to live in Spain, commute to work across the border.
Mr Rajoy defended border controls and said they help combat the flow of contraband, such as drugs and tobacco. He said that the checks were in line with security policies employed by member countries of the Schengen free travel zone to which Britain and Gibraltar do not belong.
Spain has also floated the idea of charging people entering and leaving Gibraltar €50 (Dh245) to provide compensation for the losses that the fishermen face.
Mr Picardo has refused to back down. He said that "hell will freeze over" before Gibraltar removed the reef in compliance with Spain's demands. He has accused Spain of behaving like North Korea.
David Cameron, the British prime minister, has asked the European Union to investigate the border checks. He called the EU commission president, José Manuel Barroso, to raise concerns that the checks violated the bloc's rules on free movement.
Mr Cameron urged Mr Barroso to send an EU monitoring team to the Gibraltar-Spain border to investigate. Both Spain and Britain are members of the 28-nation EU.
The UK also said it was considering taking Spain to court over the checks. Britain said on Friday that it felt the checks were politically motivated and disproportionate.
Mr Cameron said he wants to resolve the dispute through dialogue.
The issue could be complicated by the expected arrival at Gibraltar yesterday of British navy ships that have acted as an escort to aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, which is to take part in pre-planned naval exercises.
The British ships would visit several ports in the Mediterranean, carrying out an exercise with the Albanian armed forces before heading through the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf for exercises with other British allies.