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Last Updated: Saturday, 16 December 2006, 16:13 GMT
Spain restores Gibraltar air link
A policeman looks on as an Iberia flight lands in Gibraltar
The Iberia flight landed around midday on the Rock...
The first direct passenger flights from Spain to Gibraltar have begun, marking a historic development in ties between Spain and the tiny British territory.

A jet from Spanish carrier Iberia with senior officials on board flew from Madrid to Gibraltar airport, while a British flight headed the other way.

Spain, which ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713 but still claims it, had blocked flights for nearly 30 years.

Spain, the UK and Gibraltar signed a deal in September to restore air links.

On board the Iberia flight were Spain's junior foreign minister, Bernardino Leon, and a senior diplomat Jose Pons, who were making the first official Spanish visit to Gibraltar for 50 years.

A British Airways flight takes off from Gibraltar bound for Madrid
...a BA flight had earlier taken off in the opposite direction

They and the others on board experienced the novelty of landing on a runway that bisects the territory's main road and juts out into the Mediterranean in the shadow of the famed Rock.

A delegation of Gibraltar officials, including Chief Minister Peter Caruana, was at the airport to greet them.

"This is extremely important. It opens possibilities for the citizens of this area," said Mr Leon. "It's an agreement in which everyone wins."

Heading in the other direction after a gap of nearly 30 years was a British Airways flight to Madrid, with passengers including a party of schoolchildren from Gibraltar.

"I warmly welcome the start of regular scheduled air services between Gibraltar and Madrid for the first time since 1979," said the UK's Minister for Europe Geoff Hoon.

The flights were "a tangible sign of progress" that will "bring real benefits to the people of Gibraltar", he said.

Spain's then ruler Gen Francisco Franco ordered the border closed in 1969.

Road links were reopened in 1985 but until now the Madrid authorities had maintained their block on flights, meaning the only way of reaching or leaving Gibraltar by plane was through Britain.

Under the deal, commercial aircraft flying in and out of Gibraltar will no longer have to circumvent Spanish airspace, though Madrid's restrictions on military flights have not been eased.

Iberia plans to run a daily service from Madrid, while British Airways is to operate a regular service from May.

Devolution vote

Gibraltar, a limestone outcrop on the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula, occupies a commanding position at the western gateway to the Mediterranean Sea.

map

It has been ruled by Britain since 1713 under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht.

In 2002, the people of Gibraltar overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that Britain share sovereignty over it with Spain.

Earlier this month, voters in Gibraltar backed a referendum to devolve more powers from the UK.

More than 60% of those who voted supported proposals which would give more power over local affairs and establish an independent judiciary.

Britain will still retain overall sovereignty and responsibility for the territory's defence.


SEE ALSO
EU threatens Gibraltar tax break
21 Jan 05 |  Business
Regions and territories: Gibraltar
12 Sep 06 |  Country profiles

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