Gibraltar minister accuses Spain of saber-rattling

LONDON (AP) — The chief minister of Gibraltar on Monday accused Spain of acting like North Korea after suggesting it could impose steep new entry and exit fees for the British territory.

Spain has long laid claim to Gibraltar, and the British territory on the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula is the source of occasional diplomatic friction between Madrid and London.

The latest spat involves an artificial reef being built in Gibraltar that Spain says is hurting its fishermen. It has floated the idea of charging people entering and leaving Gibraltar 50 euros ($66) as compensation.

Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo told BBC radio that such fees would violate European Union freedom of movement rules, and said “hell would freeze over” before the reef would be removed.

“What we have seen this weekend is saber-rattling of the sort that we haven’t seen for some time,” Picardo said, describing threats of border fees as “more reminiscent of the type of statement you’d hear from North Korea than from an EU partner.”

Under Spain’s former Socialist government, relations between Madrid, London and Gibraltar eased greatly.

But in an interview published Sunday in Spanish newspaper ABC, Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said the “playtime” of that era was over.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary said late Monday that he had spoken to Picardo to express solidarity with territory’s residents.

“The U.K. stands shoulder to shoulder with the people of Gibraltar at this time of increasing Spanish pressure and rhetoric,” William Hague said in a statement, repeating that the U.K. had pledged “not to compromise on British sovereignty over Gibraltar.”

But he also nodded to the fact — so far — the talk of sanctions had not amounted to real clampdown on the territory.

“We agreed that it was important to respond to actions, not rhetoric,” he said.

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