Spanish boats bar new British ferry

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PATROL boats of Spain's Guardia Civil prevented a British-owned car ferry from unloading at the Mediterranean port of Almeria to inaugurate a service from Morocco in line with EC Single Market regulations.

The ferry, the Scirocco, was refused off-loading facilities at the Spanish port and forced to stay berthed for several hours. It was eventually allowed to dock yesterday at Malaga, further along the coast. The incident appeared likely to provoke tension between the Spanish government and Brussels, London and Rabat.

EC regulations which came into effect on 1 January allow free maritime transport between member countries, including the use of third-country ports. Spain argues that its bilateral treaties with Morocco do not permit such competition from outsiders.

But the cold truth seems to be that Spain's state enterprise Transmediterranea did not relish the idea of competition on routes between Spain and its former North African colonies, that Transmediterranea has until now monopolised.

'At Almeria, they treated us as though we were criminals,' Armando Liggeri, a spokesman for the British owners of the ferry, Cenargo International, said. 'What they did was illegal. They put two Guardia Civil patrol boats between our stern and the dock, preventing us from offloading.'

The Civil Governor of Almeria justified the decision by saying that 'Almeria is not an international crossing point', an argument not heard in the area before. Cenargo International had billed it as the 'inaugural voyage' of the ferry it plans to run between Nador, Morocco, and Almeria.

After Spanish hints that the ferry would be intercepted at sea, the owners had restricted the first crossing of the car-ferry to journalists, mostly Spanish and Moroccan, as well as assorted businessmen and dignitaries.

The Scirocco was allowed to dock at Almeria on Sunday night. But local port authorities refused to let anyone disembark. After hours of telephonic haggling between the ferry and Almeria's Civil Governor, the Scirocco had to sail in the small hours and was eventually allowed to dock at Malaga. This time, local officials allowed weary travel writers to go ashore.

Citing the single market regulations, Cenargo decided to run the ferry service from the under-used port at Nador to the equally under-used Almeria. The idea was to ease the huge backlogs that build up at busier Spanish ports each summer as Moroccan workers from throughout Europe return home for their holidays. The Spanish ferries use the port at Melilla, the Spanish enclave in Morocco, that shares the same bay as Nador.

The Spanish authorities fear the new service will draw not only passenger but also commercial business to Nador from Melilla, which depends on trade with mainland Spain.