GIBRALTAR (AFP) - Britain on Tuesday said it would lodge a formal complaint with Spain after drivers were subjected to five-hour-long queues to cross into the tiny British outpost of Gibraltar, in a growing diplomatic row.
"The Foreign and Commonwealth Office will be protesting to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the unacceptable delays seen this morning at the Spanish border with Gibraltar," a Foreign Office spokesman said.
Gibraltar has accused Madrid of imposing the checks in retaliation for its decision to drop concrete blocks into the sea to create a reef for fish at the mouth of the Mediterranean.
Madrid claims the border checks are necessary to combat smuggling and that the reef is a deliberate impediment to Spanish fishing vessels in a dispute over territorial waters.
Waiting times peaked at five hours in the early afternoon, according to the Royal Gibraltar Police.
Many people parked their cars on the Spanish side of the border and decided to walk across the border, carrying their luggage or briefcases in their hands to escape the tailback of cars waiting to pass the exhaustive checks imposed by Spanish authorities.
"This has happened to me several times, at least six or seven times" in recent days, said Francis Perez, a 30-year-old unemployed construction worker who waited for an hour and a half to cross the border into Gibraltar with his family.
Perez is from Madina Cidonia, a Spanish city located about 50km from Gibraltar, and like many area residents he heads to the British outpost to buy fuel for his car and tobacco because taxes there are lower.
"It's horrible to have to spend hours to get in and out of Gibraltar. Today it's not too hot but there are other days when it was unbearable. It's all just politics," he said, as his car crept ahead.
Britain and Spain are embroiled in an escalating diplomatic row over stringent car searches imposed since the end of July by Spanish guards at the Gibraltar border, which have regularly caused delays of several hours.
Britain on Monday threatened to take legal action over the checks on the border of the rocky outpost on Spain's south coast while Spain said it was considering taking the dispute to global bodies such as the United Nations and the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Gibraltarians are firmly on London's side in the latest of a long string of spats.
"We don't want to belong to Spain, we are happy being British," said 42-year-old Gilbratarian Kim Bickerstaff, complaining that the Spanish border checks hurt both residents and visiting workers.
About 6,000 Gibraltarians live on the Spanish side where housing in cheaper, according to Madrid.
"Those of us who have family or work here have a different viewpoint from the rest of the Spanish, we are not anti-Gibraltarian," said Rafael Marquina, a 46-year-old government worker from the Spanish border town of La Linea who was visiting his aunt in Gibraltar.
"All the problems come from an incorrect starting point: that Gibraltar is Spanish. But Gibraltar is British and its people feel British," he said.
The British warship HMS Westminster set sail on Tuesday on a training exercise that will include a stop at Gibraltar.
The type 23 frigate left Portsmouth naval base on England's south coast to join nine other Royal Navy vessels heading for the Mediterranean and the Gulf.
Defence officials said the training exercise has long been planned and follows similar deployments in 2011 and 2012.
About 10,000 Spaniards cross the frontier each day to work in the self-governing British overseas territory which measures just 6.8 sq km and is home to about 30,000 people.