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By Angus Berwick
MADRID, April 4 (Reuters) - Spain’s foreign ministry denied a Spanish naval vessel had made an illegal incursion into hotly disputed waters off the British enclave of Gibraltar on Tuesday.
The government of Gibraltar, a peninsula on the southern tip of Spain, said earlier that a Spanish patrol ship had entered its territorial waters without permission.
Disputes between Gibraltar and Spain over the waters are frequent but the latest comes days after the territory of some 33,000 people took centre stage in the wrangling over Britain’s exit from the European Union, which was triggered on March 29.
An EU draft position published last Friday after Prime Minister Theresa May filed formal divorce papers said the application of any EU-UK trade deal to Gibraltar had to be agreed between Britain and Spain, which has long claimed sovereignty over the enclave.
In response, May issued a statement saying London was “steadfast” in its commitment to the territory. Her spokesman however played down comments by a former leader of her Conservative Party that she would be prepared to go to war to defend it.
On Tuesday, Gibraltar’s government published a video on Twitter of the Spanish Navy patrol ship Infanta Cristina in the sea off the territory and accused it of carrying out an “illegal incursion” into its territorial waters.
A spokesman for Spain’s foreign ministry said Spain did not recognize the waters as belonging to Gibraltar and the ship had been on a routine patrol.
“An illegal incursion, no, because for us it is the utilisation of our waters,” the spokesman said on the phone.
“Spain does not recognize other rights and situations belonging to Great Britain in the maritime spaces that are not included in Article 10 of the Treaty of Utrecht,” he said.
Gibraltar was captured by Britain in 1704 and ceded to Spain in 1713 under the treaty.
In a 2002 referendum, Gibraltarians rejected by 98 percent a proposal for joint British-Spanish sovereignty. (Editing by Julien Toyer and Andrew Roche)