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Spain Shuts Gibraltar Border Over Virus

November 3, 2003

GIBRALTAR (AP) _ Spain closed off its border with Gilbraltar on Monday while a cruise ship with some 2,000 passengers, including several dozen sickened by a highly contagious stomach virus, docked at the British colony.

The border closing _ the first in nearly two decades _ angered London, which called the move unnecessary, and trapped several hundred people trying to enter the tiny territory from Spain. Spain and Britain regularly disagree over the sovereignty of the once-strategic military post.

The Brirish-owned Aurora, which was denied entry to a Greek port on Friday because of the sicknesses, docked for 11 hours at Gibraltar _ and about 50 passengers stayed on board while the rest of the passengers, mostly Britons, were allowed to go ashore.

More than 400 of the ship’s 1,800 passengers at one point or another during the cruise have falled ill with the highly contagious gastrointestinal bug called a norovirus. The viruses are spread through food, water and close contact with infected people and cause diarrhea, vomiting and nausea. Symptoms usually last up to two days.

``It has been pretty ghastly,″ said British retiree Evelyn Gibbons, who recovered from the virus. ``I was in bed for some time. It was the most disappointing holiday I have ever had.″

As the Aurora pulled in to dock at Gibraltar, passengers lined the decks and waved _ while some, wearing bathrobes and apparently bedridden, waved from their room’s balconies. One man, as a gag, held up a white T-shirt emblazoned: ``Help!″

Of the 50 who remained on board during the day’s stopover, only 11 were considered to be seriously ill, the ship’s owner P&O Princess Cruises PLC said. The ship left Gibraltar in the early evening for Southhampton, England, where it set sail last month on the Mediterranean cruise.

The Spanish shut their border to the colony to pedestrian and vehicle traffic about a half-hour before the Aurora docked. Authorities said they expected to re-open it shortly after the departure of the ship.

About 300 people lined up at the border Monday waiting to cross into Gibraltar, a chunk of land with some 30,000 inhabitants located at Spain’s southern tip. Thousands of people who live in Spain work in the territory.

``We were obliged to halt traffic between Spain and the colony of Gibraltar given the absence of information on the virus,″ Spanish Health Minister Ana Pastor said.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw criticized the closure, calling it ``unnecessary and disproportionate.″

The cruise operator withheld the passports of passengers going ashore. That, Straw said, was ``a perfectly adequate safeguard that none of those people can go through the border into Spain.″

Gibraltar frequently complains that Spanish authorities cause delays at the frontier as part of their campaign to reclaim the territory, now a major tourist resort with important offshore banking and port facilities.

Spain has never given up on trying to get back the 1,400-foot-high rock of Gilbralter since it was captured by the British in 1704, though Madrid formally ceded it nine years later.

Late Spanish dictator Gen. Francisco Franco closed the border in 1969 and it was not reopened until 1985, 10 years after Franco’s death.

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