MADRID - Spain's foreign minister made a historic border crossing to the disputed British colony of Gibraltar on Tuesday, the first by a Spanish Cabinet minister since the Rock was ceded almost 300 years ago.
Miguel Angel Moratinos said Spain did not renounce its claim to the small British-held outcrop on Spain's southern tip, but it believes co-operation is the way to resolve disputes and improve standards for the multicultural territory's 30,000 residents.
"We have been hitting ourselves against the rock of incomprehension for too many years, and what we have to do now precisely is to open channels so we may understand each other better," Moratinos said after meeting with British counterpart David Miliband and Gibraltar Chief Minister Peter Caruana.
Spain ceded sovereignty of Gibraltar to Britain in a 1713 treaty, but has persistently sought its return, claiming the territory as a natural and historic part of its geography. The outcropping is in the Strait of Gibraltar, for centuries a strategic waterway linking the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
In their talks, Moratinos, Miliband and Caruana discussed issues that concern the colony including fishing, fiscal control, security, environmental issues and crime, while they agreed to sidestep questions of sovereignty.
The ministers hailed the meeting as "historic," and agreed to expand links between Spain and the colony including with a new ferry route between Gibraltar and Algeciras and a hot line between the two cities to discuss bilateral issues directly.
"Problems get solved through dialogue and co-operation," Moratinos said. "We must look to the future and not to the past."
Spanish officials have visited Gibraltar before, but Moratinos is the first minister to do so.
His trip has been criticized by Spain's opposition conservative Popular Party, however, as a "terrible mistake" that is tantamount to recognizing Gibraltar as a sovereign territory.
Spain's governing Socialist Party spokesman Leire Pajin insisted that "the issue of sovereignty is not at stake," and the trip would help improve life in Gibraltar for its residents and the estimated 12,000 Spaniards who cross over daily to work there.
Most residents of the Rock speak perfect Spanish and even own property along Spain's Mediterranean coast.
Disputes over issues such as customs and border matters, fishing rights, Gibraltar's offshore banking practices and smuggling have long embittered relations.
The issue of regaining Gibraltar is still a heartfelt cause for many Spaniards. About 30 people gathered on the Spanish side of the border to protest the visit Tuesday. In Gibraltar itself, where residents have consistently backed the status quo, several British Union Jack flags hung from balconies.
Associated Press writers Gregory Katz in London and Harold Heckle in Madrid contributed to this report.