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Saturday, 5 June, 1999, 17:46 GMT 18:46 UK
Gibraltar: Rock of ages
Spain has contested the status of the Rock for almost 300 years
Gibraltar, the tiny British Overseas territory on the coast of southern Spain, has loomed large in the history books for hundreds of years.

Strategically important, it keeps watch over the intersection of two continents and the only entrance to the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean.

It has been besieged 15 times, and derives its name from the invading Arabic leader who captured Spain and Gibraltar in the eighth century.

But during the course of the 19th century, Gibraltar developed into a fortress of renowned impregnability - the phrase "As safe as the Rock" becoming commonplace in the English language.

Impenetrable Rock

Gibraltar remained Spanish until early in the 18th century, when it was captured by the British, and formally ceded to the Empire.

Key dates
1704 Britain captures Gibraltar from Spain
1713 Spain formally cedes it to Britain
1783 Spain ends four-year siege
1830 Becomes British crown colony
1967 Residents' referendum rejects Spanish sovereigny
1969 New constitution affirms UK ties but brings self-government
It is now a British air and naval base at one of the world's strategic cross-roads.

Its sheer, inaccessible cliffs have been identified as one of the "Pillars of Hercules" - marking the western classical world's furthest limits of navigation.

And the Romans coined the phrase "Ne Plus Ultra" - go beyond at your peril, referring to the Straits of Gibraltar.

Gibraltar problem simmers on

There have been a number of Spanish attempts to retake Gibraltar, which is connected to the mainland by a mile-long peninsula.

Key facts
Status: UK dependent territory
Area: 6.5 sq km
Climate: Mediterranean
Population: 30,000
Languages: English (official), Spanish
In 1779, Spain began its "Great Siege", which lasted for four years, causing great destruction to Gibraltar and its fortifications.

In 1830, it became a British crown colony, but the "Gibraltar problem" simmered on into the 20th century.

In 1963, the question of Gibraltar's status came before the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonisation, and Spain seized the opportunity to revive her claim for the reversion of the Rock to Spanish sovereignty.

Spain increased border restrictions with Gibraltar and eventually closed the frontier and all other means of direct communication with the mainland in 1969.

After 16 years of isolation from mainland Spain, the frontier gates were reopened, but relations are far from cordial.

Underground tunnels

The peninsula is just 5km long and a kilometre wide, but its value as a naval base has been proved many times.

It was a key point in the anti-submarine campaigns in both World Wars.

With scant space for development, Gibraltar went "underground" as the harbour was redesigned and an airfield built.

Miles of tunnels and chambers were dug out of the limestone and an underground city, with its own electricity supply, telephone exchanges, frozen meat stores, water distillers, bakery and hospitals was created.

See also:

12 Feb 99 | UK Politics
UK backs Gibraltar rights
30 Jan 99 | Europe
Between a Rock and a hard place
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