The people of Gibraltar turned out in force yesterday to vote in a referendum that is expected to overwhelmingly reject attempts by Britain and Spain to negotiate joint sovereignty over the British colony. Peter Caruana, Chief Minister of the tiny territory attached to the southern coast of Spain, said 15 percent of the 20'683 registered voters had cast ballots in the first two hours of polling and predicted a high turnout. The Gibraltar government called the referendum after British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw announced in July that the British government was, in principle, in favour of sharing sovereignty over Gibraltar with Madrid. The move followed months of talks between Britain and Spain in which the Gibraltar government took no part. Both London and Madrid say the referendum carries no legal weight. But Caruana said that if the vast majority of Gibraltarians rejected the joint sovereignty idea, he would ask both governments to abandon further negotiations. “But we hope it won't be necessary...They should respect the democratically expressed wishes of the people of Gibraltar,” he told reporters after casting his vote at a polling station. If there was a “no” vote of 90 percent or more, he said, it would be a “political dead end” for London and Madrid to continue down the road of joint sovereignty. A party atmosphere prevailed in Gibraltar, where streets were decorated with red and white pennants and many houses flew Britain's Union Jack or the Gibraltar flag. One man walked down the street wearing a “Proud to be British” tee-shirt. The overwhelming sentiment of campaign posters and of people ready to give their opinion was a rejection of joint sovereignty. There is no official “yes” campaign. When Gibraltarians were last asked in a referendum 35 years ago if they wanted the territory to be British or Spanish, only 44 people voted for the Spanish option. Gibraltarians say they have been British since the 18th century and culturally are not Spanish and do not want to be. Some also think they are better off economically as a British colony than they would be if they joined Spain. John Byrne, a 55-year-old teacher born in Oxford, England, who has lived in Gibraltar since 1966, was waiting to vote before polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0700 GMT). “I have no problem with Spain or with the Spaniards,” said Byrne, who said he voted “no” to the referendum question which asks: “Do you approve of the principle that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar?” “(But) I cannot understand how a democratic British government can want to give away what is our birthright without even asking us,” Byrne said. One of the few prepared to speak out in favour of a “yes” was plumber Manuel Sanchez. “I think there are many people who are aware that we must seek a solution to this problem but for different reasons don't dare to speak,” he said. In a sign of the pressures dissidents face, an angry «no» supporter strode up to Sanchez as he talked to reporters, stabbing his finger in the air and shouting at him. British trade union leader Paul Noon, one of more than 20 international observers of the vote, said his impression so far was that “things are being done democratically and fairly”.

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