Wed, Nov 05, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Gibraltar-Spain border opens again

NO RISK Spanish officials decided that the departure of the Aurora meant there was no risk of transmission of the virus into Spain, while UK relations soured

REUTERS , GIBRALTAR

Gibraltar's Chief Minister Peter Caruana is interviewed by a television station in front of the cruise ship Aurora in Gibraltar, off southern Spain, on Monday.

PHOTO: AP

Spain reopened its border with the British colony of Gibraltar on Monday after sealing it for the first time in nearly two decades after a cruise ship carrying tourists with a stomach infection docked there.

The border was reopened two hours after the Aurora, carrying hundreds of British tourists who have suffered from the infection, sailed for Southampton, England.

The Gibraltar government's decision to allow the ship to dock prompted Spain to close the border between the Rock and Spain early on Monday morning, leaving hundreds of workers and tourists stranded on the wrong side.

Spain said the closure was a provisional measure designed to protect its citizens' health while it sought more information from British authorities. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called it "unnecessary and disproportionate."

A gate at the border was rolled back and applause broke out as hundreds of people started crossing about 13 hours after the frontier was closed, witnesses said. A Spanish civil guard policeman shook hands with a Gibraltar policeman.

The closure revived tensions between Madrid and London over the disputed territory at the foot of Spain. Some 4,000 Spaniards cross the border every day to work in Gibraltar.

Health Minister Ana Pastor told reporters that after receiving reports from Spanish experts, Gibraltar health authorities and the ship's owners, she had reached the conclusion that the ship posed no risk to public health.

"Therefore, the movement of people between Spain and Gibraltar may resume," she said.

However, Spanish news agency Europa Press said that, as a precaution, Spanish officials would for the next 72 hours ask people leaving Gibraltar if they had had contact with passengers from the cruise ship and if they had any symptoms of the illness. If so, they would be subjected to tests.

Straw told reporters in London he regretted the Spanish action. A diplomatic source said Straw later talked to Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio about the incident.

Gibraltar's Chief Minister Peter Caruana called the Spanish response "wholly unjustified and disproportionate."

Gibraltar said the outbreak of viral gastroenteritis was nearly over and only 11 people were sick out of 559 who had been struck by the 24-hour virus. There were seven new cases on Sunday, Gibraltar said.

Gibraltar said infected people were not allowed off the vessel, which left the Greek port of Piraeus on Friday after authorities there refused to allow passengers or crew to land.

Doctors in Greece treated passengers and provided medical supplies to those patients suffering from diarrhoea and vomiting.

Some 1,900 tourists were on the ship, which left Southampton on Oct. 20 on a 17-day Mediterranean cruise.

The Aurora's owners, P&O Cruises, said the infection was believed to have been brought on board the ship by a passenger at Southampton.

Healthy passengers disembarked for some sightseeing on Monday, determined not to let the outbreak spoil their holiday.

Passenger Stan Bee said: "The captain imposed some restrictions, such as not allowing self-service in the restaurant, but they weren't that severe."

The border closure was the first between Spain and Gibraltar since it was fully reopened in 1985.

Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco shut the frontier in 1969 as part of Spain's long-running dispute with Britain over Gibraltar, a strategically located rocky outcrop at the mouth of the Mediterranean.

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