A French warship is reportedly on the way to Jersey in a post-Brexit clash over fishing rights after Royal Navy gun boats were sent in.
Tensions escalated as a flotilla of French boats, said to number around 60, arrived at St Helier harbour and were being watched by two Royal Navy ships – HMS Severn and HMS Tamar.
The two armed vessels were seen patrolling the outskirts of the island on Thursday morning as French military boat, the Athos, was reported to now be heading there as well.
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Some fishing boats set off flares and there was discussion over maritime radio of a blockade. The French vessels entered the harbour this morning but have since left and are massing near Elizabeth Castle, the Jersey Evening Post reported.
A number of locals have turned up to watch the drama unfold.
Downing Street said Prime Minister Boris Johnson sent the Navy ships after intelligence suggested the French boats had planned to block access to the port, despite calling for a “de-escalation in tensions”.
The French fisherman are protesting the lack of access to waters around the Channel Island because of restrictions on licences for small boats to operate within 12 miles of its shores.
Following talks with John Le Fondre, Jersey’s chief minister, Mr Johnson warned any attempt to block ships by the French would be “completely unjustified” and expressed his “unwavering support” for the island’s government.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “The prime minister and chief minister stressed the urgent need for a de-escalation in tensions and for dialogue between Jersey and France on fishing access.
“The prime minister underlined his unwavering support for Jersey. He said that any blockade would be completely unjustified. As a precautionary measure the UK will be sending two offshore patrol vessels to monitor the situation.”
Both the Navy vessels are heavily armed. HMS Tamar, which has machine guns and a helicopter landing pad, came into service in January and was commissioned to protect UK fishing waters in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The Commodore Goodwill freight ship was initially unable to leave port earlier today.
In a tweet Paul Luxon, Condor’s chief executive, said: “Sadly she is trapped, we tried to bring her in earlier so in – discharge, load – out, and on her way, but in dialogue with Jersey Authorities ‘safety first’ of course.’”
However the protest leader later instructed the vessels to let the ship leave.
A member of the Jersey Militia re-enactment group was seen firing on the French boats with a musket from Elizabeth Castle this morning after the flotilla left Jersey’s main harbour and returned to open water.
In a statement, Mr Le Fondre and the minister for external relations, Senator Ian Gorst said they expected a “peaceful demonstration by the French fishermen outside St Helier Harbour” on Thursday.
On Wednesday night, the pair said: “The responsible Ministers and government officials have met this evening to ensure that the very best plans are in place to ensure Islanders interests are properly protected at all times. We remain confident in our ability to do this.
“We welcome the ongoing support from the Prime Minister and UK Government to achieve a diplomatic solution to this dispute, and we are aware that the UK are sending two offshore patrol vessels as a precautionary measure to monitor the situation in Jersey waters.”
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said they Navy ships had been deployed to Jersey “to conduct maritime security patrols, adding “This is a strictly precautionary measure and has been agreed with the Jersey Government”.
Jersey has been asked to give authorisation to 41 French boats to fish off its coastline but said 17 of the vessels had been unable to prove they had historical links to the fishing grounds as required in the terms of a Brexit agreement struck last year.
The island’s government placed restrictions on how long some of the boats could fish in Jersey waters and the type of equipment they could use.
France has also threatened to cut the island’s electricity off if the dispute is not resolved.
Annick Girardin, the French maritime minister, warned on Tuesday Paris could shut down three undersea cables which provide Jersey with 95 per cent of its electricity.
The threat by French fishermen to blockade St Helier would prevent supplies from being delivered.
A UK Government spokesman earlier said: “To threaten Jersey like this is clearly unacceptable and disproportionate.
“We are working closely with the EU and Jersey on fisheries access provisions following the end of the transition period so trust the French will use the mechanisms of our new treaty to solve problems.”