Submarine row overshadows Blair visit

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The Independent Online

A dispute over the British nuclear submarine Tireless, awaiting repairs in Gibraltar, overshadowed talks in Madrid yesterday between Tony Blair and his Spanish counterpart, Jose Maria Aznar.

A dispute over the British nuclear submarine Tireless, awaiting repairs in Gibraltar, overshadowed talks in Madrid yesterday between Tony Blair and his Spanish counterpart, Jose Maria Aznar.

The two leaders sought to cool matters by agreeing to more consultation between Spanish and British experts in what each described as "a climate of complete confidence and transparency" that they hoped would send a message of reassurance to people who lived near the Rock.

Mr Blair said after the meeting: "We understand totally the concerns of the Spanish people and we undertake to keep Spain fully informed. We accept full responsibility for safety issues. There really is no safety problem whatsoever." He said senior Spanish and British technicians would meet next week to discuss fully all the problems relating to the repair of the damaged submarine.

This sidestepped Spanish demands for access to the vessel. Mr Blair said: "The question of access by technicians can be discussed next week." In response to questioning, the Prime Minister said: "Are we being completely transparent? Answer: Yes."

This week Madrid said it had received insufficient information about the vessel, which docked in May. Britain says the full extent of the damage will not be known until the Royal Navy finishes a micro-photographic investigation.

On the eve of yesterday's visit Spain's Foreign Minister, Josep Pique, sent Robin Cook, his counterpart, a letter expressing anxiety about the seriousness of the fault and alarm about the unspecified time the vessel might be at the Rock.

Pressure was compounded yesterday by the arrival in Madrid of politicians from around Gibraltar who demonstrated against Mr Blair's visit and demanded that Tireless be removed. Juan Carlos Juarez, mayor of the border town of La Linea, said: "We want Mr Aznar to urge Mr Blair to agree to this demand." Mr Juarez added: "We know the damage to the submarine is greater than we were first told."

Pressure on Mr Aznar from regional politicians and environmental associations has mounted since May.

The latest alarm was triggered by Britain's announcement last Friday that it was withdrawing from service all its attack submarines over fears that the fault, originally described as a pipework crack, is a generic design fault in the cooling system of the fleet.

Madrid wants Spanish technicians to inspect the damage but has not asked explicitly for fear of rebuff. Their wish was repeated yesterday by the Defence Minister, Federico Trillo-Figueroa, who urged Mr Blair to consider "the sensitivity of public opinion and the government".

British diplomats wriggled when asked if permission would be granted. "Gibraltar is not a Nato base, therefore there is no reason why Spain should be allowed privileged access to the vessel," a source said.

But Britain's ambassador to Madrid, Peter Torrey, and Captain Peter Hurford, chairman of the Royal Navy Nuclear Regulatory Panel, sought to smooth feathers on the eve of Mr Blair's visit, assuring Madrid that there was no risk of danger to Spaniards.

Mr Torrey held an emergency meeting with Mr Pique, and Captain Hurford briefed Spain's Nuclear Security Council after his visit this week to the submarine. The council is to report to the Spanish cabinet.

The official purpose of the Aznar-Blair meeting was to discuss reforms of the European Union in the run-up to the Nice summit in December.

Mr Aznar wants to ensure that Spain's EU voting strength is comparable to that of Britain, France, Germany and Italy. Europe-wide economic liberalisation and the fight against organised crime were also on the agenda.

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