Little armada sails in for the battle of Guernsey

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Ten French fishing boats defied a British ban yesterday and entered a restricted area of Channel Island waters.

Sea Fisheries inspectors from Guernsey took the details of the boats, one of which was fishing, but no arrests were made.

The fishermen, from the Normandy port of Granville, were accompanied by a naval helicopter and a coast guard vessel, the Coriandre, which has apparently been ordered to intervene should any attempts be made to arrest the fishermen.

No Royal Navy patrol vessels were in the area. The only official British presence was inspector Stephen Ozanne and his colleagues in a chartered motorboat and a small inflatable.

The French fishermen are furious at Guernsey's decision to abandon a two-year-old agreement that permitted them to fish the area known as the Sark Box and another area, the Haricot.

Guernsey withdrew from the agreement at midnight on Saturday but a shortage of diesel fuel because of the strike by French lorry drivers, and 30-knot winds prevented the fishermen from making their protest until yesterday lunchtime. By then the winds had eased and the boats set sail for the Sark Box, to the south of Guernsey, arriving at around 2pm.

Although it is not thought likely that the British authorities will arrest the fishermen, Ron Le Moignan, a Guernsey councillor, issued a strong warning on Sunday, promising to "fight a guerrilla war with them". By yesterday the official Guernsey line had moderated, a diplomatic solution to the disagreement being considered more appropriate than confrontation. The Foreign Office is taking the same moderate line, seeking talks with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in Paris.

"We have urged the French fishermen to show restraint," a Foreign Office spokesman said. "We are anxious that there should be talks as soon as possible to everyone's mutual agreement."

The French ministry, however, maintains that its fishermen have historic rights to enter the two areas under an agreement drawn up in 1839.

The fishing rights to the lucrative Channel Island waters have been disputed by the French for some years. In 1993 Mr Ozanne and his fellow Sea Fisheries officer Ben Remfrey were kidnapped by the crew of a French fishing boat which they had boarded and taken to Carteret.

They were immediately returned to Guernsey by the French police but the following day 39 French boats blockaded the entrance to St Peter Port, their crews demanding talks with the Guernsey authorities.

Several French fishermen have been heavily fined for illegal fishing in the waters but this seems to have done little to deter them. One, who was fined last year, said on French television: "If they attempt to arrest me they'll have to sink me before I will go back to St Peter Port."