A Spanish Civil Guard policeman was killed after his helicopter crashed into the sea while it was chasing a Gibraltar-registered speedboat with three suspected smugglers on board. One of the trio, who was later arrested, is a Gibraltar resident. About half a tonne of hashish, destined for Spain, was found on his boat.
If, as seems likely, it is established that the helicopter crashed because it was fired on from the speedboat, a situation may arise in which a drug- trafficking resident of a British crown colony, claimed by Madrid as Spanish territory, is charged with the murder of a Spanish policeman. This will obviously inflict damage on Britain's relations with Spain, a major European Union partner, at just the time when this country badly needs a better image in the EU.
The rights and wrongs of Britain's disputed sovereignty over Gibraltar are not the central issue. The immediate question is why Gibraltar's chief minister, Joe Bossano, and his government are failing to suppress the tobacco- and drug-smuggling gangs that are poisoning British-Spanish relations.
Only last summer the then Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, had to crack the whip and warn Mr Bossano that Britain might impose measures leading to direct rule of Gibraltar unless the local government got tough with the smugglers. For a while, it appeared that Mr Bossano had taken the message to heart. The authorities confiscated all but 12 of the 64 fast launches operating out of Gibraltar's harbour. The smuggling problem became less acute, and Spanish officials privately made clear their pleasure with what looked like decisive action instigated by John Major's government.
It seems now we are back to square one. The smugglers are regaining their confidence, and the Gibraltar government appears at a loss what to do. It is not entirely the fault of Mr Bossano and his colleagues. They should certainly do more to stamp out the drug-trafficking from Morocco, but they face a genuine dilemma: the health of Gibraltar's economy is intimately connected with the activities of smugglers, especially of tobacco.
The answer must be for the government in London, be it Tory or Labour, to take firm steps over the next few years to help the Gibraltar authorities clamp down on drug-trafficking and clean up the local economy. Britain's relations with Spain must not be held hostage to criminal gangs. The first step must be for London to reiterate and if necessary implement the threats of intervention that it made last year.