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9 August 2013, 06:39
A Portsmouth-based warship will visit Gibraltar later this month, amid increased tensions in the overseas territory with Spain.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) confirmed frigate HMS Westminster and two other ships will visit Gibraltar while other elements of a task force will visit Spanish ports as part of training exercises known as Cougar 13.
The MoD said the deployment is "long-planned'' and not connected to the political tensions in the region, which have flared up following talk from Madrid that a 50 euro (£43.30) fee could be imposed on every vehicle entering or leaving the British Mediterranean outpost through its border with Spain.
There have also been allegations of damage to fishing grounds caused by Gibraltarian authorities following the creation of an artificial reef while checks at the Rock's border with Spain have resulted in lengthy queues.
Gibraltar's chief minister, Fabian Picardo, has likened the Spanish behaviour to something from the Franco era or the regime in North Korea.
A No 10 source said David Cameron made Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy aware the "routine deployment'' of ships to the Rock would be happening when the pair spoke yesterday.
Cougar 13 involves the UK's response force task group and seeks to hone skills through various exercises, the MoD said. It is in its third year.
Four Royal Navy warships, the lead commando group from 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines and elements of naval air squadrons will be supported by six vessels from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said:
"The Royal Navy's annual Cougar deployment is long-planned and well-established.
"Gibraltar is a strategic base for UK Defence and as such Royal Navy ships visit its waters throughout the year as part of a range of regular and routine deployments.
"Elements of last year's Cougar 12 deployment visited Gibraltar and the forthcoming visit by ships making up Cougar 13, including HMS Westminster and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships Lyme Bay and Mounts Bay, are business as usual.
"At the same time, other elements of the task force will be visiting Spanish ports as part of the exercises.
"The same phase of the deployment will also see port visits in Portugal and throughout the Mediterranean to Spain, Turkey and Malta before onward transit to the Middle East.''
Cougar 13 exercises include the UK working with Albania's armed forces in the Adriatic before the ships sail through the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf.
The majority of the task force returns to the UK in December with three ships remaining east of Suez to support efforts to keep sea lanes safe for trade, the MoD added.
Mr Cameron yesterday told Mr Rajoy the situation at the border with Gibraltar was "not acceptable'' as the two leaders held talks aimed at calming tensions.
No 10 said that in the "constructive'' phone call Mr Rajoy agreed to reducing measures at the border which have led to lengthy delays for Gibraltarians, but a statement issued by the Spanish government made no reference to any such concession and insisted procedures at the frontier were proportionate.
Foreign Secretary William Hague and Spanish foreign minister Jose Garcia-Margallo are expected to discuss the next steps in resolving the dispute.
The European Commission has suggested organising a "technical meeting'' with the Spanish authorities about the border controls in September or October.
A spokesman said that because Gibraltar, like the UK, was not part of the Schengen open borders area in Europe "checks on persons can be carried out at its border with Spain''.
Customs checks were also allowed which "may include inspecting means of transport, luggage and other goods carried by or on persons''.
"These controls must, however, remain proportionate,'' a spokesman said.
Spain claims sovereignty over the Rock, which stands on the southernmost tip of the Iberian peninsula but has been a British Overseas Territory since the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The UK Government has made clear that it will not negotiate over sovereignty as long as Gibraltar's people want to remain British.