Spanish Navy Orders Merchant Ships to Leave Gibraltar Anchorage

The Tornado (P-44) off Gibraltar on Saturday (Gibraltar)

By The Maritime Executive 02-18-2019 05:52:42

The government of Gibraltar issued a strong protest on Sunday after a Spanish naval vessel entered the bounds of Gibraltar's maritime claims and ordered several merchant vessels to leave "Spanish" waters. The dispute adds to a long history of tensions with Madrid over the validity of the Rock's maritime boundaries.

In an audio recording of the radio exchange, the Spanish vessel identified itself as the patrol boat Tornado (P-44) and instructed a "drifting" merchant vessel to depart Spain's territorial waters. The merchant vessel can be heard responding that it is at anchor at the Gibraltar anchorage, not adrift. 

Gibraltar's VTS issued a countervailing order asking the vessels to stay in place. The UK Royal Navy deployed a launch and a rigid-hulled inflatable boat to respond to the scene, and after being challenged, the Spanish warship sailed away along the Gibraltar coast with its weapons uncovered and manned.

"The reality is that the merchant vessels were in [Gibraltar's waters] when they were instructed to move. In other words, the Spanish vessel sought to exert jurisdiction and control in an area of water where they are not legally entitled to exert such control," Gibraltar's government said in a statement. 

For its part, Spain maintains that the vessels were within Spanish waters, in accordance with its maritime claims. “The Tornado called three commercial ships that were breaking maritime security law in Spanish territorial waters by standing still,” Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell told media on Monday. “Those ships responded to the requests of the Tornado and abandoned the area."

According to Gibraltar, the Tornado entered the area and ordered the merchant ships to move in order to further Spanish sovereignty claims - an act that is potentially inconsistent with the innocent passage rules of UNCLOS. Gibraltar also warned that the act was potentially hazardous to shipping, and said that it took attention away from more pressing security concerns. 

"It is nonsensical that Spain should deploy one of its warships to play war games in British waters at a time when there are serious threats in this area which are well known. The Spanish actions serve as a dangerous distraction to wider military and security interests in the region," Gibraltar said. 

"[The Spanish vessel's] actions outside our waters, when she sought to direct shipping outside her jurisdiction, and when she sailed through out waters with her weapons naked, was an amateurish attempt at bravado. It achieved nothing more than to provoke - whilst is was properly ignored by the masters of the vessels at anchor," said Gibraltar's Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo. "Incidents like this, however, are a useful reminder of why we will never agree to be Spanish."