Thousands in Gibraltar linked hands Wednesday to create a human chain around the tiny British colony at the tip of the Iberian peninsula, celebrating the 300th anniversary of the territory's capture by Britain.
The human chain was an unmistakable political statement to the colony's neighbors in Spain, which lost the deep-sea harbor and strategic naval base on Aug. 4, 1704 and has yearned to recover it ever since.
"We are going to prove to the world that nobody can take Gibraltar from us," said Lilian Carroll, a 60-year-old resident.
"We've been here 300 years. We own 'the Rock,'" she said, referring to the popular nickname for Gibraltar, a promontory jutting from the Mediterranean Sea near the narrow strait the separates Europe from Africa.
An estimated 12,000 people _ a third of colony's population _ turned out to create the human chain. Many wore red T-shirts adorned with British flags.
Gibraltar's government declared the day a national holiday called the Day of Freedom.
Later, the House of the Assembly, Gibraltar's parliament, presented the Freedom of the City award to the British Royal Navy, which deployed the frigate HMS Grafton to Gibraltar for the celebrations. Some 300 British sailors also paraded through the city's streets as British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon and other dignitaries looked on.
'Some exercise of self-restraint'
Hoon's presence at the celebrations stirred resentment in Spain, and Spanish officials have repeatedly lodged protests with the British ambassador in Madrid.
"Nobody can deny the Gibraltarians the right to commemorate their own history," Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos wrote in an essay published by the El Pais newspaper.
"However, some exercise of self-restraint might have been expected from the British government," a fellow European Union member, he wrote.
Spanish officials have also protested the recent visit to Gibraltar of Britain's Princess Anne and the nuclear-powered submarine HMS Tireless.
But Gibraltar's chief minister, Peter Caruana, said the celebrations were not meant to snub Spain's new government.
"Neither the Tireless, nor the royal visit of the princess, nor Hoon's visit are (designed) to snub the ruling Socialist Party. The three events were programmed well before (Spain's) elections," Caruana said at a press conference, speaking in Spanish.
Britain was given formal control of Gibraltar by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, and its current position is that no change of the colony's status can be negotiated with Spain unless Gibraltar residents agree.
That's not likely anytime soon. A proposal for joint Spanish-British sovereignty of the territory failed in 2002 after nearly 99 percent of Gibraltar voters rejected the idea in a nonbinding referendum.