Tempers fray over Spanish moves to block the Rock

Gibraltar is under siege as border crossings are brought to a standstil l
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The Independent Online
IN THE new open Europe, traffic jams sometimes two miles long wind back from the border between Spain and Gibraltar. Below in the bay, innocent fishermen and young cigarette smugglers have their boats buzzed by Spanish helicopters.

A new siege mentality has arisen in the British colony. Gibraltarians accuse the Spanish government of reviving the tactics of General Franco who, in 1969, imposed a 16-year blockade in an attempt to force the 30,000 people on the Rock to accept rule from Madrid.

The modern variant of Franco's tactics is border checks, which from the end of October have meant that drivers crossing into Spain have had to satisfy rigorous demands that their cars are carrying everything from valid insurance documents to surgical gloves.

Gibraltar's shops, which rely on the 4 million tourists who come to buy cheap cigarettes, televisions and petrol, have seen their income halved.

In public at least, the island's leaders are defiant. Nearly all are critical of the British government and the European Union for not doing more to stop the Spaniards breaking European law. But they are confident that the people can take whatever burdens the Spaniards put on them.

``Blockades are a threat we are prepared to put up with,'' said Ernest Montado, the local government's senior civil servant. ``We put up with them under Franco. If you look at the history of Gibraltar, it is a series of sieges - this is the 19th, I think.''

But Gibraltar's history has taken a new turn. For the first time since Spain ceded the Rock to Britain in 1713, British military spending is no longer the basis of the Rock's economy. In 1960, the Ministry of Defence employed 51 per cent of Gibraltar's labour force and its spending accounted for 65 per cent of gross domestic product. Today, the armed forces keep less than 10 per cent of the workforce employed and account for just 9 per cent of GDP.

The signs of British military withdrawal are everywhere. Barracks have been handed over to the local government and the soldiers' living quarters turned into homes for Gibraltarians. The MoD docks, which used to employ 5,000, will have only 700 workers by 1997. Pubs are no longer full of squaddies drinking beer but Gibraltarians taking coffee. The new industries which have replaced defence - tourism and financial services - need open borders and are susceptible to Spanish pressure.

The harassment of Gibraltar began at the end of October, when Cesar Brana arrived as Civil Governor of the neighbouring province of Cadiz. His part of southern Spain has areas of desperate poverty. La Linea, just across the border, has an unemployment rate of 33 per cent - in part because Spanish blockades have prevented the town developing as a service centre for Gibraltar.

Mr Brana fed on local resentments by proclaiming that the region's endemic drug and crime problems had their roots in Gibraltar. Gibraltar was a centre of drug trafficking, money laundering and tobacco smuggling, he said - likening its position to ``the historic role played by the British pirate Sir Francis Drake, who caused so many problems for Spain''.

Virtually everyone in Gibraltar regards the drugs issue as a flimsy pretext to pressure the colony into giving up its allegiance to Britain. For when the delays at the border began, it was not drugs the Spanish were interested in but a baffling range of car accessories.

Drivers are stopped by the Civil Guard and asked to produce insurance documents, a complete set of spare bulbs, first-aid boxes (complete with surgical gloves), blankets, fire extinguishers and spare tyres. Failure to meet requirements leads to on-the-spot fines of pounds 50-pounds 100. The searches mean that some days as few as 12 cars an hour can cross the border.

Last Sunday, the same demands were made on drivers leaving Spain for Gibraltar, even though the justification for the checks was to stop drugs coming into Spain.

The result of the partial blockade has been scenes of near-riot. On 1 November, a group of 25 Spaniards, who had nipped across the border to fill up with cheap petrol, came close to blows with the Guardia after being stuck for three hours. One British soldier who sped through the checkpoint was allegedly beaten up by Spanish officers. The MoD has now issued a warning to servicemen after two Royal Navy staff were fined pounds 50 each for not carrying surgical gloves in their cars.

The Gibraltar police vigorously deny that the colony has become a drug centre. Plenty of marijuana is brought from Morocco to Spain by sea, but there is no evidence, they say, that any more than a handful of smugglers' boats are based in Gibraltar. Nor is there evidence of drug selling in the streets. Besides, Spain's own drugs service reports that the main source of entry of heroin into Spain is the French border. No Spaniard has suggested stopping every car that travels from France, officials note drily.

What Gibraltar does have in abundance are cigarette smugglers. They meet in the bars by the marina and are just as patriotic and anti-Spanish as the Rock's most respectable politicians.

Cigarettes cost just 65p for a packet of 20 in Gibraltar, explains Paul, a 34-year-old from Lincolnshire. They are bought legally at the docks and ferried across to Spain, where they can be sold for pounds 1.30 a packet. About 50 boats used to be involved in the ``Winstons trade''. ``You would make about pounds 100 a trip,'' said Paul.

But the Spanish clampdown is quite literally killing the trade. Two smugglers have died. Alfred Ryan, a 26-year-old, was hit on the head by the ski-blades of a Spanish helicopter which was chasing him. Kenneth Pogio, a 35-year-old married man who had two children, died when his boat was rammed by the Spanish coastguard.

``It's getting very nasty here,'' said Paul. ``There's going to be trouble.'' Other smugglers roared their assent. In the increasingly violent atmosphere, compromise seems impossible. Jaxier Solana, the Spanish Foreign Minister, has told the Spanish Parliament that ``pressure'' as well as ``persuasion'' will be put on Gibraltarians to accept Spanish rule.

(Photograph omitted)