London — A fleet of warships was assembled at British naval bases to leave for the South Atlantic in the mounting crisis with Argentina over the disputed Falkland Islands, the British Broadcasting Corporation said.
It could take the British force up to three weeks to reach the area, where Argentina was reported gathering a task force of its own, consisting of its single aircraft carrier, several destroyers and frigates, and a submarine. British press reports said at least one and possibly two British nuclear-powered submarines were already on their way to the area.
The crisis began 12 days ago when a party of Argentine scrap metal merchants landed on remote South Georgia Island, a Falklands dependency, to dismantle an old whaling station. They put up an Argentine flag, and about 10 of them remain despite British requests to leave. Britain said the merchants are there illegally.
Argentina has long claimed sovereignty over the chain of about 100 islands, reported to have seabed oil deposits, and it promised protection to the merchants. Political sources in London said Argentina's action in sending warships to the Falklands could be an attempt to divert attention from domestic difficulties.
The Falkland Islands, 450 miles from the South American mainland, are home to 1,800 English-speaking inhabitants, almost entirely of British stock. The islands have been a British colony since 1833, but have long been claimed by Argentina, which calls them the Malvinas.
Diplomatic sources in Buenos Aires said Washington was believed to be acting as mediator.