Spanish seal border as virus ship docks

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GIBRALTAR was the centre of a fresh political row last night after Spain closed its border with the Rock following the arrival of the Aurora, the P&O cruise ship hit by noroviruses, highly contagious gastrointestinal bugs.

Squads of National Police and paramilitary Civil Guards took up positions, effectively cutting off the tiny British colony, shortly before the Southampton-based Aurora arrived in Gibraltar at 8am local time.

The move, the first time the border has been closed between the mainland and the British colony for more than 17 years, was attacked by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, as "unnecessary and unwelcome".

He added: "I regret the action taken by the Spanish government, which is unnecessary and disproportionate.

"There have been active discussions over the weekend with the Spanish government and the decision made by the operator of this cruise liner to withhold the passports of those who go on to the shore in Gibraltar is a perfectly adequate safeguard to ensure none of these people can actually go through the border control into Spain. The action is unnecessary and unwelcome."

Peter Caruana, the chief minister of Gibraltar, said the 1,800 British passengers on board had been forced to "float around the Mediterranean like unwanted refugees". He attacked the Spanish move, calling it unnecessary, unreasoned and over the top.

"There is absolutely no justification to deny passengers access, still less for the Spanish authorities to close the landline," he said. "I think if Spain were not claiming sovereignty of Gibraltar, the frontier would not be closed as a result of this incident."

The closure also stranded more than 4,000 Spaniards who cross the border every day to work in Gibraltar.

Ana Pastor, the Spanish health minister, said the closure was a preventive measure "so that no Spanish citizen runs any kind of risk". The Spanish government reopened the border last night, after the cruise ship had left.

P&O would not comment on Spain’s decision, but said only six people were now suffering from noroviruses.

The infection, believed to have been brought on board by a passenger at Southampton, is spread through food, water and close contact with carriers. It causes diarrhoea, vomiting and nausea and usually lasts up to two days.

When the ship left for Gibraltar on Friday, after being denied entry to a port in Greece, more than 400 of the 1,800 passengers on board had fallen ill.

As healthy passengers disembarked for some sightseeing yesterday, one local unfurled a Union Flag in protest against the Spanish authorities.

Michael Ballestero, 70, said: "We have been here on Gibraltar since 1704, and we shall stay here whatever happens and whatever the Spanish do."

Mr Ballestero, who said he had worked for the army, RAF and navy, added: "They forget that this is British and we go by the law in Britain. If you are British, you are British forever."

Ronald Martin, 40, was one of the passengers on the 17-day Mediterranean cruise with his wife, Doreen, and their two children, Lynsey, 15, and Rebecca, 11.

Mr Martin, originally from Ayr but now living in Snaith, Yorkshire, said: "The kids have not seen land since 28 October. They were confined to a cabin with no windows for three to four days with vomiting and diarrhoea. We were not allowed to leave the cabin.

"They were sanitising the ship, wearing suits, and they looked like the blokes from ET, which was frightening for the kids. It makes you wonder why they are wearing the suits.

"We’ve not been ill but it was bad for the people who were. When we went to dinner, the ship was like the Marie Celeste."

Michelle Seaborn, 35, who appeared on the television programme Wife Swap, was on board with her husband, Barry, 43. She described the ship as "terrifying".

Ms Seaborn, from Southport, Merseyside, said: "They should have turned the ship around and sailed back to the UK. Everybody is sick and we’re not allowed to go in public areas.

They are walking around in white suits like Ghostbusters, spraying everything with chemicals."

The cruise, which has set sail for Southampton, is due to reach the UK on Thursday.

David Dingle, the managing director of P&O Cruises, flew to Gibraltar yesterday morning to speak to the captain of the Aurora and the passengers, who have paid up to 5,000 for the cruise.

Some have already contacted solicitors and are threatening to sue P&O.

Mr Dingle said: "I’m sure some passengers will wish to contact us about the cruise and talk about individual difficulties they have found on board, and we will assess that accordingly."

Yesterday’s political row is the latest chapter in a long running dispute over Gibraltar since Spain ceded sovereignty to Britain in 1713. The last time the border was closed was in 1967, under the former dictator, General Franco. It was not until 1985 that Spain, then a democracy, reopened it.

Last year, Mr Straw said Britain was, in principle, in favour of sharing sovereignty with Spain over Gibraltar. Talks later stalled, and in a November referendum Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly to stay British. Spain declared the poll illegal.

In June, a British minister said a negotiated solution was years away.