UK

Gibraltar bag incident: Spain 'promises no repeat', says UK

Gibraltar
Image caption It is the latest in a series of disagreements between Spain and Gibraltar

The Foreign Office says it has received an assurance from Spain there will be no repeat of the bag-opening incident at the centre of a diplomatic row.

UK official baggage was opened by the Spanish Guardia Civil at the Gibraltar border on Friday, prompting a formal protest by the British government.

The Spanish had put the incident down to an "error" by a junior official, UK Europe Minister David Lidington said.

Prime Minister David Cameron said he was "reassured" by Spain's response.

Mr Lidington told the Commons: "The explanation which the Spanish have given to us... was that this was an error at junior operational level at the crossing point between Gibraltar and Spain."

"The more senior Spanish official present put a stop to that interference with our official correspondence as soon as he realised what it was that was happening."

At PMQs the prime minister described the incident as "extremely serious" but said he was "reassured this will not happen again".

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The Foreign Office says two UK government bags were opened.

It would not say what was in them, but Mr Lidington said they contained "official correspondence and communications [and were] clearly marked as such".

He said protocol surrounding such correspondence and diplomatic bags was governed by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

According to the convention, packages carrying official documents and other material deemed necessary for use by a diplomatic mission - provided that they are clearly marked as such - cannot be opened or detained.

Mr Lidington said the convention embodied "important international principles that protect official correspondence and communication between a state and its representatives.

"The UK strictly adheres to these principles and we expect other states to do the same."

He told the Commons: "If the Spanish authorities had had concerns about the contents of our bags, internationally-accepted practice would require them to contact the British authorities."

Urgent question

Spain's foreign minister Jose Garcia-Margallo had said earlier: "There is no incident. If it is not a diplomatic bag, there is no diplomatic incident.

"A bag was opened, which was not a diplomatic bag."

Spanish officials have been quoted as saying that a bag has to come from an embassy or a ministry to be protected under the Vienna convention.

Spanish newspaper ABC said it understood the incident concerned a package from the governor of Gibraltar which was being carried by a message company with other bags.

Conservative MP Nigel Evans, who raised an urgent Commons question on the incident said: "This is the first time an EU state or Nato ally has opened a UK diplomatic bag."

He said the last time a British bag had been tampered with was by the Zimbabweans under Robert Mugabe in 2000.

'Harassment after harassment'

Veteran Labour MP Sir Gerald Kaufman said: "If this alleged error by a jobsworth was the only act of intimidation and aggression by the Spanish authorities on the frontier with Gibraltar it might just get by.

"But this is a whole succession of harassment after harassment after harassment."

Sir Gerald and a number of Tory MPs raised the prospect of either expelling the UK's Spanish ambassador or increasing the British military presence in the region.

Conservative Peter Bone suggested it would be a "good idea" for "some Royal Navy ships to make a goodwill visit there - preferably a couple of gunboats."

But Mr Lidington sought to dampen calls for a more aggressive response, adding: "We are maintaining strong pressure on the Spanish government to de-escalate current tensions and to work with us to manage our differences through diplomatic and political routes."

This row - the latest in a series of tensions over Gibraltar - comes days after Foreign Office minister Mark Simmonds told MPs Britain was to review its naval policy around the British territory following an illegal incursion into its territorial waters by a Spanish state vessel.

The RV Ramon Margalef was challenged by the Royal Navy after it refused to leave Gibraltar waters after 22 hours despite repeated requests.

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