A rapid reaction force of Royal Navy warships is to visit Gibraltar on its way to exercises in the Mediterranean just as Britain and Spain are locked in a fierce diplomatic row over the future of the territory.
The force of nine vessels, led by the helicopter carrier HMS Illustrious and including two frigates, will sail for the Mediterranean on Monday at the start of a four-month deployment. Three of the ships, including HMS Westminster, will dock at Gibraltar.
Royal Naval chiefs stressed that the visit by the Response Force Task Group was part of a long-planned exercise and not in response to the diplomatic row, but the presence is unlikely to be well received by Spain.
Tension between the two countries over Gibraltar's sovereignty are at their highest for some time following a row over fishing rights and the imposition of punitive border checks by Spanish guards.
Just two days ago, Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar's Chief Minister, asked for Royal Navy warships to be sent to the region to stop Spanish incursions into the Rock's territorial waters and the row has continued since then, despite attempts to de-escalate the situation.
Yesterday, Picardo said that his territory would be delighted to welcome the Royal Navy vessels. "Gibraltar has a long and close relationship with the Royal Navy and we will be delighted to welcome HMS Westminster and the support ships back to the Rock. It is further proof, if any were needed, of the continuing strategic importance of Gibraltar and its territorial waters."
The deployment, called Cougar 13, will involve the force sailing through the Mediterranean and on to The Gulf and Horn of Africa, holding joint exercises with navies along the way.
Spain has warned it is ready to impose a border tax, close its airspace to planes using the Rock's airport and investigate the affairs of Gibraltarians with Spanish economic interests.
Turning heat on Rock
What is the source of the row?
Spain is objecting to the construction of an artificial reef on the northern end of the territory, which consists of a collection of sunken wrecks and concrete blocks designed to give marine wildlife an environment to breed and colonise, and boost tourism. Madrid says the reef will affect the catch of local Spanish fishermen. Gibraltar says one boat has over-fished the area, and decided to enforce a 1991 law banning fishing to the letter.
How has Spain shown its anger?
Tension has flared several times over the past nine months. Gibraltarians said Spanish police motor boats have interfered with pleasure craft. A 10,000-strong petition was submitted calling on the Government to take a firmer line with Madrid. In February, a Spanish warship entered British water for 20 minutes where it was confronted by the navy and asked to leave. At the end of July, residents and tourists endured three days of delays at the border because of increased vehicle searches by the Spanish authorities. Spain has threatened to impose an entry fee of 50 ($83.70) to cars entering from Gibraltar.
Haven't we been here before?
The rock has been disputed by Spain since Britain captured it in 1704 but relations have rarely been this bad since World War II. Under General Franco's dictatorship the frontier to the mainland was closed in 1969 for 16 years.
What do the Gibraltarians say?
The 30,000 locals say Madrid is just trying to distract from its woeful economic problems. They are determined to remain a British Overseas Territory.
Why is the territory so important to Britain?
The limestone outcrop on the Iberian Peninsula has a prime strategic location and is home to a British naval base.