PM's Blair and Aznar held talks yesterday.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar denied yesterday that talks with Britain on the future of Gibraltar were in crisis, but gave no hint of progress after talks in London with Prime Minister Tony Blair. Both sides say real difficulties are stalling negotiations to end their 300-year-old dispute over sovereignty over the British colony, a tiny outcrop on Spain's southern coast. But they have pledged to press for a resolution by mid-year. The two leaders insisted yesterday their negotiations remained positive and constructive and said they would stick by their efforts to resolve an issue which has soured relations between two NATO allies and European Union partners. “We know what problems still have to be resolved,” Aznar told a news conference after the talks. “We're also fully aware of the difficulties we will face in resolving this. So let's not use...descriptions like crisis.” Blair sought to play down the Gibraltar dispute, saying it took second place yesterday to discussions for next month's EU summit, to be hosted by Aznar. “The (Gibraltar) talks are continuing. They take place in a positive atmosphere. That's all I've got to say,” he said. Britain has said it wants any deal reached to be a final solution to the issue, but Spain has said it could never abandon its claim to complete sovereignty over The Rock, which was ceded to Britain under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. Britain for its part has set out its own “red line” beyond which it will not budge -insisting it will retain control of Gibraltar's military base, a convenient stop for its submarines. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw rejected claims that the two sides would try to overcome the impasse with a fudge. “If we get to that point, of semantic fudge, then there will be no deal,” he told BBC radio. He described the talks, which began last year, as preliminary negotiations and stressed that no agreement on joint sovereignty would be imposed on the people of Gibraltar unless they agreed to accept it in a referendum. “To make life better for the people of Gibraltar and paradoxically to give them more control over their own lives...we need this process of calm negotiation, followed by a long period of deliberation with the people of Gibraltar, with the final say resting with the people of Gibraltar,” he said. Straw and his Spanish counterpart Josep Pique will hold a new round of talks soon, British officials said, and Aznar will return to London for general discussions on June 18, just prior to a European Union summit which he will host. Gibraltar's 30'000 people vehemently oppose any Spanish role in their affairs and have staged several mass demonstrations in recent months against the London-Madrid talks.


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