Gibraltar drug chase death angers Spain

Madrid gives Britain a dressing-down after helicopter crashes pursuing speedboat off the Rock
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The Independent Online
Spain imposed strict border controls and Britain's ambassador in Madrid was summoned to the Spanish foreign ministry for a dressing-down yesterday, after a civil guardsman died in a helicopter crash off the southern coast while in pursuit of a Gibraltar-registered speedboat suspected of drug- running. The incident was described as "very serious" and reignites the long-smouldering row with Britain over drugs being smuggled via Gibraltar from Morocco to Spain.

The ambassador, Anthony Brighty, received a formal complaint that Britain was not doing enough to stamp out drug smuggling through Gibraltar, a senior Spanish diplomatic official said. "The incident shows that the smuggling operators are still active. Britain, as the colonial power, bears a very large part of the responsibility. It has only snipped off the leaves of the carrot. The root is still alive and we want it pulled up," the official said.

Prodded by Madrid, Britain last summer imposed measures to combat smuggling and money-laundering in Gibraltar that were acknowledged by all parties to have cut down illicit traffic. But the foreign ministry said yesterday that the measures had been "neither effective nor sufficient" and must be strengthened.

Spanish regional authorities slapped what they described as "very severe controls" on the border with Gibraltar in response to "the intolerable rebirth of the speedboat smugglers". The regional governor admitted that the stringent measures would probably cause considerable inconvenience for visitors to the Rock, but were necessitated by recent events.

A British embassy spokeswoman, commenting on the meeting between Mr Brighty and the foreign ministry's head of European affairs, Jose Rodriguez Spiteri, said: "The ambassador received Spain's expressions of displeasure and reiterated HMG's commitment to eradicate drug and tobacco smuggling."

The stricken civil guard helicopter was closely pursuing a Gibraltarian speedboat when it fell into the sea near Cape Trafalgar on Wednesday afternoon, killing one of the crew. Two others swam to safety.

Two men on board the speedboat, a Gibraltarian and a Moroccan, were detained. They apparently told the authorities they had unloaded 600kg of hashish from Morocco on to the beach near the Spanish town of Barbate and were returning to Gibraltar. A third man, a Spaniard, escaped.

Earlier on Wednesday, the three-man crew of another Gibraltar-registered speedboat fired on the civil guard helicopter with marine-flare pistols off the coastal town of Tarifa. The three, two Gibraltarians and a Briton, were detained, but on this occasion the helicopter was not harmed.

Gibraltar's Chief Minister, Joe Bossano, yesterday rejected the suggestion that his authorities were not doing enough to combat drug-trafficking. "We have tightened the system as much as we can, we are spending proportionately more than either Spain or Britain, but no system is 100 per cent foolproof. We took action against the rigid-inflatables and there are now only 10 legally berthed in Gibraltar's harbour, compared with more than 60 last summer. But it's still 10 too many," Mr Bossano said yesterday.

Mr Bossano reiterated his long-standing complaint that Gibraltarians were not the only ones involved in trafficking. "My responsibility is to remove the Gibraltar connection. Even when in time we eliminate all the boats registered in Gibraltar, this will not stop the problem."