UK and Gibraltar clash on drugs curbs

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Britain and Gibraltar were at odds last night over new measures to combat drug smuggling and money laundering agreed yesterday between Britain and Spain. The growing tension between Whitehall and an increasingly suspicious administration on the R ock wasunderlined by the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, who pointedly declined to rule out the possibility that direct rule might eventually be imposed on the colony.

In London yesterday Mr Hurd and the Spanish Foreign Minister, Javier Solana, announced that a joint group of British and Spanish officials would be set up to combat drug smuggling.

"I don't think that what we need is a new mechanism," Joe Bossano, Gibraltar's Chief Minister, said in a telephone interview from the colony last night. "My instinctive reaction is to say I know nothing about this."

Mr Hurd, in an interview with the Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation, responded that Mr Bossano's administration would have to be consulted. "I made it clear that I cannot set up a mechanism, it would be pointless, without the government of Gibraltar being involved," he said. Mr Bossano had been invited to attend the UK-Spanish talks but had declined.

But Mr Bossano accused the British government of mounting "an orchestrated dirty tricks campaign" to undermine the Gibraltar government and to placate Madrid. He said the fight against drug smuggling had not been helped by rigid Spanish controls recentlyimposed at the border.

Gibraltar has come under sustained pressure from Whitehall to implement European Union regulations intended to curb money laundering through the banking system. Britain and Spain both agree that there is also a problem of drug and tobacco smuggling through the colony.

An angry Mr Bossano said: "I know from watching Spanish television today that the way this is being announced in Spain is as a major victory for Solana, who has forced the British to force Gibraltar to fight drugs by screwing up the frontier. This is be i ng sold in Spain as an admission of delinquency."

The Chief Minister confirmed that he had come under pressure from London to bring Gibraltar's legislation into line with EU standards by January. He said Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had become "very bolshie" at a meeting last February to discuss setting up a Financial Services Commission to regulate the banking sector. "We reluctantly agreed to it," said Mr Bossano. But the pressure was renewed at a second set of meetings in September. "I felt I was being reprimanded and I stopped being reprimanded when I was five years old," he said.

The open conflict between Mr Bossano and Whitehall has raised the possibility that London could impose direct rule through the powers vested in the Governor of Gibraltar, Sir John Chapple.

Asked by the Gibraltar radio interviewer if he could give an undertaking that direct rule would not be used, Mr Hurd replied: "Gibraltar has to meet the international obligations which we British have assumed on its behalf, we have to co-operate to do that and this is what we are seeking to do. I will certainly not look beyond that." Pressed again, he said: "The Governor has reserved powers but I do not want that he should use them; that is not the best basis."