Hoon's visit to Gibraltar branded an 'unfriendly act' by Spain

The Royal Navy will march through Gibraltar today to claim the "freedom of the city" in the climax of the colony's 300th anniversary celebrations, which have provoked a diplomatic row with Spain.

The Royal Navy will march through Gibraltar today to claim the "freedom of the city" in the climax of the colony's 300th anniversary celebrations, which have provoked a diplomatic row with Spain.

The Spanish government yesterday accused Britain of an "unfriendly" act by dispatching Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, and the frigate HMS Grafton to Gibraltar for the 300th anniversary of its capture by an Anglo-Dutch fleet on 4 August 1704.

Today, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Alan West, will receive the freedom of the city on behalf of the Navy. British sailors will then parade through Gibraltar "exercising their right of freedom", as a Ministry of Defence official put it. Gibraltarians, who remain bitterly opposed to sovereignty returning to Spain, plan to form a human chain around the Rock.

The celebrations are seen as a provocation by the socialist government in Madrid, which defeated the government of Jose Maria Aznar in March. The Grafton fired a 21-gun military salute when it sailed into Gibraltar on Saturday. "This commemoration of a military event in the past does no favours for relations with Spain," said the Spanish Foreign Minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, in El Pais newspaper.

"It is very strange that in the European Union, in the 21st century, the military occupation of the part of one member state by another is being celebrated."

Spanish and British diplomats yesterday engaged in a damage limitation exercise amid the intensifying rhetoric.

Denis MacShane, the Europe minister, held a first meeting with the newly accredited Spanish ambassador, Carlos Miranda, at which he expressed regret at the "emotive tone" of the complaints about the anniversary celebrations. Both officials agreed that "this issue should be discussed in a more calm and quiet manner", said a Foreign Office spokesman.

A Spanish embassy official agreed that Spain was now anxious to look beyond the spat over today's commemorations, and that the ambassador's meeting with Mr MacShane - followed by lunch - took place in a "positive and constructive" atmosphere. A British ministerial aide said: "For domestic political reasons, the new socialist government of Spain will want to be seen as tough on Gibraltar as the Aznar government but the Foreign Minister writing in El Pais said that we should move forward. That is our view.

"We think that a nation of 60 million and a nation of 40 million should get down to serious business and work closer together as members of Nato, and the European Union.

"Gibraltar is important. It blows up from time to time, but we are looking at a closer political relationship between the Labour government and the socialist government of Spain." Spain reacted sharply last week when Britain announced that Mr Hoon would travel to Gibraltar for the anniversary, and called in the British ambassador, Stephen Wright, to lodge a protest. The ambassador was also called in to hear a complaint concerning a visit to the colony by the Princess Royal several days earlier.

It was the third protest in a month that the envoy had endured. Last month, the British nuclear submarine HMS Tireless provoked a protest by docking in Gibraltar. Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the Spanish Prime Minister, described the submarine visit as the incident which most irked him during his first 100 days in office.

Asked about the protests, an MoD official with Mr Hoon said: "The British government has no wish for the issue of Gibraltar to damage relations, but from a defence perspective we intend to use the operational facilities here as requirements dictate. Our intention is not to provoke the Spanish government."

Despite the moves to ease the diplomatic tensions, however, there are no plans to revive talks on the sovereignty of Gibraltar, and the thorny issue of the naval base. Negotiations between Madrid and London on joint sovereignty collapsed in 2002 after Gibraltar's inhabitants rejected any role for Spain in a non-binding referendum. Spain has been keen to reopen the negotiations but Britain has appeared cool. Mr Moratinos said Britain should not use the population of Gibraltar as a pretext to avoid discussions.

The sensitivity of the issue was highlighted yesterday when Peter Caruana, Chief Minister of Gibraltar, criticised the US State Department over the withdrawal of the USS McFaul, a warship, to avoid upsetting the Spanish government - a key member of Nato - over today's ceremony.

"First of all, we had not thought that the US Navy sought permission from third countries before they decided what ports they visit," he told the Gibraltar Chronicle. "Second, it represents a huge snub to a population which has always been supportive of the American use of Gibraltar."

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