Gibraltar, Spain resume ferry link after 40 years

A ferry service between Spain and the disputed British colony of Gibraltar reopened Wednesday, 40 years after it was closed by the Spanish dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

A 150-seat catamaran, the "Punta Europa Segundo", made the inaugural half-hour crossing from the Spanish port of Algeciras to the rocky islet off Spain's southern coast.

A Spanish company, Transcoma, is to operate a daily service between the two points, aimed at tourists as well Spanish workers employed in Gibraltar.

The link was closed by Franco's government in 1969 at a time of increasing restrictions against the British territory, which included the closure of the land frontier which did not fully reopen until 1985.

Its resumption was the result of talks involving Britain, Gibraltar and Spain in July as part of ongoing forum which seeks to establish areas of cooperation between the territory and Madrid.

Spain hailed the new service.

"Spain is confident that this example of local cooperation serves the forum's objective to promote economic and social development of Gibraltar" and the area of Spain around Gibraltar, Spain's foreign ministry said in a statement.

It said the ferry was expected to carry about half a million passengers annually.

Guests on the inaugural voyage included Luis Felipe Fernandez de la Pena, director general for foreign policy at the Spanish foreign ministry, and Maria Isabel Durantes Gil, director general for commercial shipping at the Spanish development ministry.

They were greeted at the quayside by Gibraltar's transport and deputy chief minister Joe Holliday.

The only other regular ferry service to Gibraltar comes from the Moroccan port of Tangiers.

A Spanish airline, Air Andalus, currently operates the only regularly scheduled flights between Spain and the territory.

Madrid blocked regular air services between Spain and the territory in 1979 but allowed them to resume in December 2006.

British Airways cancelled its Madrid-Gibraltar route in September 2007 due to what it said were operating restrictions at both airports, and national carrier Iberia stopped its service last year for what it said were commercial reasons.

Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht but has retained a constitutional claim should Britain renounce sovereignty.

Its strategic position at the western entrance to the Mediterranean has long been of military interest.

Now a haven for tourism, shipping and offshore banking because of its favourable tax laws, its people overwhelmingly rejected an Anglo-Spanish proposal for co-sovereignty in a referendum in 2002.

In recent months, Spanish media has reported growing confrontations between the Royal Navy and Spain's Civil Guard police force in the waters around the promontory.

Police in Gibraltar earlier this month detained four Civil Guard officers who had chased two suspected drug smugglers into its territorial waters.

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