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Governor and CM condemn ‘unacceptable lawlessness’ of smugglers and SVA’s ‘gross violation’ of British sovereignty

Screen grab from a video filmed by one of the smugglers on the beach during Thursday's incident.

An incident on Thursday in which shots were fired by Spanish customs officers as they were pelted with rocks by smugglers on Eastern beach was “potentially the most serious and dangerous” episode in Gibraltar “for many years”.

In a joint statement, the Governor of Gibraltar, Vice Admiral Sir David Steel, and Chief Minister Fabian Picardo deplored the “unacceptable lawlessness” displayed by a group of smugglers who violently set upon two Spanish officers, both of whom were injured.

But they also condemned the presence and actions of the Spanish officers in Gibraltar as a “gross violation” of British sovereignty and said the UK Government would demand answers from Spain as it prepared a diplomatic response to the events.

The incident unfolded at around 5am on Thursday after a small rigid-hulled inflatable boat [RHIB], the tender of a larger patrol boat operated by Spanish customs, the Servicio de Vigilancia Aduanera [SVA], lost engine power in rough seas close to the shoreline in Eastern beach as it chased a small boat suspected of involvement in tobacco smuggling.

The waves pushed the SVA boat to shore where the two officers on board were surrounded by a large group of individuals – as many as 25, officials here believe - and pelted with rocks, some of them up to 20cm across.

Both officers sustained injuries but managed to refloat their vessel and row out to sea, Spanish law enforcement sources said.

A video circulated on social media on Thursday appeared to show at least two shots being fired during the incident.

A second video that emerged on Friday, apparently recorded by one of the smugglers, showed dramatic scenes on the shoreline as the two Spanish officers struggled with their boat as a group of men threw rocks at them and recovered boxes of tobacco.

As well as the SVA boat, there were two small RHIBs on the shoreline. Smugglers were seen carrying tobacco cases from the boats across the beach to the roadside.

At one point in the footage, one of the officers appears to draw a weapon and fire five shots toward the sand as a barrage of rocks splash into the sea around him and his colleague.

In the six-minute video, there are moments of great tension and one of the Spanish officers is later seen slumping to the sand.

Spanish law enforcement sources said both officers sustained injuries, one of them suffering serious facial fractures from the impact of a rock.

There have been no arrests in Gibraltar in connection with the incident, though a police investigation remains ongoing.

Spanish law enforcement agencies had carried out an operation targeting tobacco smugglers in La Linea that same night and it is possible the group in Gibraltar were chased by the SVA as they fled the police presence on the Spanish side, although this has not been officially confirmed.

Neither was it clear on Friday at what stage Gibraltar’s law enforcement agencies became aware of the incident unfolding on Eastern beach, or how. Officials here confirmed there had been no contact from the Spanish side, however.

Officers from Gibraltar’s HM Customs were the first Gibraltar law enforcement presence to arrive at the scene but were not visible in the video when the rocks were being thrown and the shots fired. The Royal Gibraltar Police also attended but arrived after Customs.

Some Spanish media reports claimed the Gibraltar officers did not offer assistance to their SVA counterparts, but this was firmly denied in the joint statement from the Governor and the Chief Minister.

The HM Customs officers first on the scene did not intervene on shore, where the four would have been outnumbered by the smugglers, but offered assistance to the two Spanish officers while awaiting reinforcements.

“The information provided to the Government of Gibraltar suggests that when they attended the scene, officers of His Majesty’s Customs immediately offered their Spanish law enforcement colleagues assistance and medical attention,” the statement said.

“The SVA officers refused the medical attention offered.”

“They told HM Customs officers that despite the fact that their vessel appeared to have engine failure, they wanted to immediately return to their main vessel, which they were permitted to do.”

The developments are serious on multiple levels and come at a delicate time in Gibraltar’s relations with Spain, particularly against the backdrop of ongoing talks for a UK/EU treaty on the Rock’s post-Brexit relations with the bloc.

Strengthening law enforcement cooperation is an element of those discussions and the events on Eastern beach will underscore the need to establish a framework allowing law enforcement agencies from both sides of the border to better coordinate and work together.

On Thursday, the Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, and Police Commissioner Richard Ullger contacted their Spanish counterparts to enquire after the well-being of the SVA officers in question.

But both the UK and Gibraltar governments are clear that, despite the injuries and the unsavoury criminality that led to them, the presence of Spanish officers on a beach in Gibraltar would not be tolerated.

The confusion surrounding the events though means they continued to adopt a cautious approach as they awaited information from Spanish authorities.

The response is being coordinated with senior officials at the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in London and with the UK Ambassador to Spain, Hugh Elliott.

In the joint statement, the Governor and the Gibraltar Government said the incident required “careful consideration” as to “the nature and level” of the UK’s diplomatic response to Spain.

UK officials will contact their Spanish counterparts to seek an explanation of what the statement described as a “violation of the sovereignty of Gibraltar” before making a final determination of what action to take.

Likewise, “the lawlessness of a gang of individuals apparently engaged in illicit activity in Gibraltar is unacceptable to the Government and represents activity that the Government and Gibraltar’s law enforcement agencies will not tolerate,” the statement added.

And despite the video evidence showing that shots were fired, the statement avoided making a firm statement on that aspect pending further investigation and feedback from the Spanish Government.

“Should it be confirmed that Spanish officials discharged their weapons in Gibraltar, such action would be a very serious breach of the law as well as being reckless and dangerous, especially in an area of dense civilian population, given the proximity of a residential estate in the area,” the statement said.

“The evidence surrounding this incident discloses a gross violation of British sovereignty and, potentially, the most serious and dangerous incident for many years,” the Chief Minister said in the statement.

“Before reacting we must of course be sure of the facts but the events indicate that the actions by the Spanish officials are intolerable.”

“Spanish law enforcement agencies know they can seek and would enjoy support from Gibraltar law enforcement if they need to continue a chase into Gibraltar but it would appear that they did not do so in this case.”

“We will continue working with our law enforcement agencies to determine the facts and will seek assistance from Spain in doing so.”

“Whilst we continue to determine the facts, I nonetheless reached out yesterday to Spanish counterparts to inquire after the well-being of the Spanish officers in question.”

“As we continue to work with our law enforcement agencies in reaching final determinations as to the location etc of the discharge of weapons, we will also work in conjunction with the United Kingdom Government in order to determine the appropriate response in respect of these dangerous actions and gross violation of our British sovereignty by the presence of Spanish law enforcement officials in Gibraltar.”

On Friday night, Spain's Ministry for Foreign affairs condemned the attack on the Spanish customs agents and said it "categorically rejects the terms" of the statement issued by Gibraltar, "as well as the claims of alleged British sovereignty over the territory and waters of Gibraltar contained within it".

“The statement is particularly incomprehensible at a time when Spain has put on the table an agreement to create an area of shared prosperity,” the Spanish ministry said in a statement.

“The Government of Spain demands efficient measures in the fight against smuggling, which prejudices all the area, and wishes the Spanish officers a speedy recovery.”

The developments were also being followed by the GSD, whose Leader, Keith Azopardi, tweeted about his concerns.

“Eastern Beach incident suggests armed Spanish customs officers were in our waters & possibly on shore itself. Smuggling (if that’s what happened) is completely unacceptable & should be cracked down hard by our law enforcement authorities. Spanish authorities have no role in Gib,” he tweeted.

“The incident is serious & could have been even worse. I am filing questions in Parliament so that there can be Government clarification after investigation. Our laws should be respected by all & enforced in our land & waters by our authorities.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this article suggested the officers from HM Customs arrived on a vessel. In fact, they arrived on land and the article has been corrected to reflect that.

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