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Spain and Britain clash over Gibraltar

Old tensions heat up over the Rock.

BRUSSELS, Belgium — It’s been a frozen conflict for most of the past three centuries, but Spain‘s dispute with Britain over Gibraltar is heating up again.

The head of Gibraltar’s British-backed government has just accused Spain of acting “like North Korea” by holding up traffic on the border and threatening a series of other measures against the tiny territory.

As well as making visitors to the rocky Mediterranean promontory wait for up to seven hours to cross the frontier, Spain’s Foreign Minister Jose Garcia-Margallo on Sunday threatened a virtual blockade.

“The party is over,” he told the ABC newspaper, confirming a reversal of the previous government’s more conciliatory stance.

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He threatened to shut Spain’s airspace to Gibraltar-bound flights and imposing prohibitive fees on vehicles crossing the border.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said he is “seriously concerned” about events on the border and the Spanish ambassador has been summoned to the Foreign Office in London.

On “the Rock,” Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo denounced Spain’s threats as “barbaric and prehistoric.”

In a statement, he likened Garcia-Margello’s comments to “tactics on Gibraltar deployed by the fascist regime led by [Spanish dictator Francisco] Franco in the 50s and 60s.”

The immediate cause of the tension is fishing.

Spain says a Gibraltarian scheme to drop tons of concrete blocks into the sea near the border will stop its boats from fishing. Gibraltar says it’s creating an artificial reef that will attract sea life.

Behind fish is a toxic sovereignty dispute dating back 300 years.

This year marks the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the War of Spanish Succession and gave Britain control over the finger of land strategically located at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea.

Spain views the British outpost on its southern tip as a colonial throwback and demands its return.

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London insists that as long as the 30,000 Gibraltarians want to remain British, it won’t discuss handing back the Rock. In a 2002 referendum, 99 percent voted against proposals for giving Spain even a partial say over running the territory.

Meanwhile, Spain complains that Gibraltar — which has recently developed a lucrative online gambling industry — is a haven for smugglers and tax evaders.

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The timing of the latest flare-up may however have more to do with Spain’s domestic politics than fears of ripped fishing nets.

The patriotic bust-up with the British is giving Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy some respite from newspaper headlines dominated in recent weeks by allegations of corruption in the highest echelons of his center-right People’s Party.

While conservative newspapers ran front pages showing the Spanish flag flying over the rock of Gibraltar, critics on Twitter were using the hashtag #cortinadehumo (smokescreen) to protest a diversion.

“The serious press has covered its front pages with the biggest problem facing the Spanish: Gibraltar,” tweeted Paco Merida from Malaga.