French fishermen strike peace deal with Guernsey: 'Men in suits and ties' repudiate agreement made after flotilla from Normandy sails to island harbour for talks

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An explosive escalation in the Anglo-French fish war appeared to have been averted last night as a flotilla of French boats began leaving Guernsey after a day of confrontation.

The vessels set sail after the fishermen hammered out an informal deal with their Guernsey counterparts allowing for a four-week cooling off period over the disputed fishing grounds. But as the trawlers left the island, Guernsey's sea fisheries authority said the agreement did not have the backing of the authorities. If the French fished in disputed waters today the Royal Navy would again stop them.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said the agreement had no legal force: 'Groups of fishermen cannot decide between themselves where they are allowed to fish.'

Such negotiations could take place only beween governments and the British authorities would continue to police the existing agreements. The fisheries minister, David Curry, would be looking at the detail of the agreement later today.

The fishermen from ports in Normandy had earlier sailed a flotilla into St Peter Port harbour and demanded negotiations with the island authorities. Their action came as the French ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office to account for recent actions by French fishermen, which have included seizing a Navy patrol vessel, burning a Union Jack and abducting three Navy men who boarded a French trawler.

Bernard Dorin had a half-hour meeting with Tristan Garel-Jones, Minister of State. Afterwards, the ambassador said: 'As for what was done to the British ensign, whatever the circumstances and motives, we condemn such action. The French authorities will do everything necessary to ensure that such incidents are not repeated.'

During the talks in Guernsey last night, the French demanded that fishery officials leave the meeting and agreed an informal deal with local fishermen.

In the deal, which excludes fishermen from Jersey and England, the French have agreed not to block Guernsey fishermen landing their catches in France and expect, in return, to be allowed to fish in Guernsey waters.

The French fishermen's leader, Christian Le Blond, stood on a trailer and addressed his colleagues, saying the meeting had been a victory: 'There was no difference between the Guernsey fishermen and ourselves. When we first arrived we were presented with technocrats, men in suits and ties who work in offices, but then we asked to meet the fishermen.'

The flotilla of 36 French vessels from Granville, St Malo, Carteret and Cherbourg had been assembled by short wave radio and headed for the Channel Islands. As the boats began their five-hour crossing the British patrol vessel HMS Brocklesby shadowed them.

At first it appeared the French, mostly shell fishermen, escorted by larger trawlers, were making again for the disputed fishing grounds, the Schole Bank, less than six miles off the island of Alderney. But the French headed on to Guernsey.

As they neared the harbour wall at St Peter Port, visible to a gathering crowd of hundreds of onlookers, the harbour authorities feared the French were planning a blockade. Two large passenger ferries quickly left the harbour to avoid becoming trapped.

At 4.30 the string of boats half a mile across reached the harbour entrance, then entered the harbour, and the multi-coloured vessels of different shapes and sizes moored four and five abreast inside the harbour wall.

A delegation from the boats began a long meeting with the Guernsey fishery authorities to try to define at local level common ground and differences between the Frenchmen and the Guernsey fleet moored two hundred yards away across the harbour. The meeting was intended to provide a basis for talks which are to take place today in Paris at government level.

At 7pm a delegation of Guernsey fishermen was brought into the talks and half an hour later they were joined by the French consul for the Channel Islands, Marie-Claire St Quirce.

But in the middle of a bizarre five- hour meeting, which did not end until after 10pm, the French fishermen's three negotiators asked for the representatives of the Guernsey fishing authorities to leave, and from then on negotiated directly with leaders of the Guernsey fishermen.

Mrs St Quirce said that the dispute over the Schole Bank fishing grounds had been the result of a difference of interpretation of an agreement signed between the British and French last year.

It allowed shell fishermen from France to continue to put their pots on the Shole Bank until 2010, even though some of it is less than six miles off Alderney, administered from Guernsey and therefore British for the purposes of defining territorial waters.

She said the British had been defining the Schole Bank as just a sand bank and enforcing that strictly, while the French thought the agreement referred to a wider area around the sandbank. The fishermens' problems are the same both sides of the Channel, involving declining catches and rising costs.

By early today all but a few of the French boats that invaded St Peter Port harbour had left for ports along the Normandy coast.