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Navy patrol in Gibraltar showdown as British boat forces Spanish warship to leave territorial waters after it ignores warnings
By Abul Taher and Gerard Couzens

PUBLISHED: 22:00 GMT, 10 November 2012 | UPDATED: 08:09 GMT, 12 November 2012

A Royal Navy patrol boat has  confronted a Spanish warship off  the coast of Gibraltar in the latest and most serious clash over Britain’s territorial waters.

The Government has accused Spain of an ‘unlawful incursion’ after the Vencedora, a 288ft-long naval corvette, came within three miles of Gibraltar’s coast, apparently heading towards its port.

The Vencedora, which means  ‘winner’, was equipped with Harpoon anti-ship missiles, multiple guns and torpedoes when it entered Gibraltar’s territorial waters on Wednesday afternoon.

The Spanish ship ignored radio warnings to leave the area, and HMS Scimitar, a seven-man patrol boat, was scrambled to intercept.

Although the Royal Navy boat was armed with only a single heavy machine gun, its presence forced the much larger ship to retreat.

The incident is the latest and most serious incursion into Gibraltar’s sovereign territory this year.

Spain does not recognise Gibraltar’s right to its territorial waters, which Britain says is guaranteed by UN law and a treaty between the two countries. A ban on Spanish  vessels – particularly fishing boats – entering the waters has caused  the most serious diplomatic rift between Spain and Britain for decades, with Spanish royals snubbing an invitation from the Queen during her Diamond Jubilee.

Fabian Picardo, chief minister of Gibraltar, said: ‘Activity of this type is a scandalous act of aggression which is illegal, imprudent, unprofessional and irresponsible on the part of whoever authorised it.

‘What we are seeing is that Spain pretends, in the face of all international law, that these are Spanish waters. This is a short-term political play of no value other than to  distract people from the serious  difficulties affecting the Spanish people and government today.’

Aspokesman for the Foreign Office said: ‘Any unlawful incursion into British waters is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty.’

The Spanish government has denied it entered the area illegally, claiming the Vencedora went to check two ships refuelling at sea.

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