Britain and Spain held a fresh round of talks over the Gibraltar dispute yesterday with neither side holding out prospects of a breakthrough. Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique met British counterpart Jack Straw in London for an informal evening dinner to discuss the colony on Spain's southern coast, which has been argued over for 300 years. Stirring the dispute further, a Spanish newspaper said yesterday quoting Spanish government sources that a February landing by British forces in Spain near Gibraltar was a deliberate attempt to disrupt the sovereignty talks. Optimism on both sides has receded in recent weeks. UK officials said they expected no make-or-break announcement to follow the latest discussions. Earlier this year, Britain insisted a deal was in the interests of everybody, particularly Gibraltarians, but the last time Straw and Pique met, in May, the UK minister said real difficulties remained to be resolved. “If we can bring a deal to a conclusion that is what we want to do. deal is obviously better for us than a bad deal,” Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman told reporters yesterday. Spain claims sovereignty over the tiny outcrop known as The Rock and the two sides are discussing a joint sovereignty agreement with the aim of reaching a deal later in the summer. Britain has set out a series of “red lines”, rejecting any transitional accord that may later lead to full Spanish sovereignty and insisting it will retain operational control of Gibraltar's military base, a convenient stop for its submarines. It also says any deal on joint sovereignty must be put to Gibraltar's 30'000 people, who vehemently oppose a Spanish role in their affairs. Spain wants to reach a deal acceptable to Britain for now while maintaining its claim to full sovereignty for the future, saying it could never abandon its historic claim to The Rock, ceded to Britain under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. The media reports in Spain yesterday suggested pessimism is on the rise there too. The pro-government El Mundo newspaper cited Spanish government sources as saying that when British navy forces landed in Spain just across the border from Gibraltar last February, it was no accident as reported but a deliberate attempt to disrupt the sovereignty talks. On February 17 a contingent of about 20 heavily armed Royal Marines landed an amphibious ship on a beach just across the Gibraltar border, stayed for 10 minutes and then pulled out. El Mundo said that the Spanish government had concluded it was done on purpose due to UK Ministry of Defence opposition to conceding any ground to Spain on Gibraltar. It was not clear how such a move might have scuppered the talks. The Ministry of Defence declined to comment but another government source described the report as “rubbish”. Diplomatic sources at last weekend's European Union summit in Seville said Spain had a problem with a Gibraltar referendum. If they agreed to one, it would be much harder to resist demands from Basque separatists for the same.


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