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Argentina braces for oncoming British fleet

By Jimmy BurnsSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 9, 1982



Buenos Aires

The scenes of celebration that greeted Argentina's military invasion of the Falkland Islands, known here as Islas Malvinas, have given way to tension as the country prepares for what the military junta sees as a possibility of war with Britain.

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Flags and posters proclaiming ''Islas Malvinas - National Sovereignty'' crowd out balconies and shop windows, but the Argentines, who a week ago thronged outside the presidential palace cheering and laughing, have turned in on themselves. Huddled in cafes, clutching the afternoon editions, they talk about what might happen if the US mediation failed.

Over the last few days the military buildup here has been unprecedented in a country that has never fought a real war. In the main towns that straddle Argentina's South Atlantic coast, civilian hospitals have had their roofs painted with big red crosses so as to identify them as nonmilitary targets to enemy planes.

Local authorities are drawing up civil defense plans and a number of towns have already held practice air raid alerts. Towns like Comodoro Rivadavia and Rio Gallegos, which have sizable airstrips, are the scene of round the clock activity with Hercules and Fokker transport planes providing a shuttle service to and from the Falklands Islands, carrying supplies and troops.

Despite the ominous buildup, a more optimistic note was sounded by Argentina's foreign minister, Nicanor Costa Mendez. ''The danger of war with Great Britain is fading,'' he said on returning from talks in Washington with US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. Later Mr. Haig flew on to London, and today he comes to Buenos Aires. Whether this more positive trend takes hold remains to be seen.

While the mood both on the islands and the mainland is one of grim determination rather than joy, there is no sign yet that popular backing for the junta has in any way diminished. If anything the setting sail of the British task force has motivated a political closing of ranks against the ''common enemy.''

At the ceremony swearing in Gen. Mario Menendez as the islands' new military governor April 7, generals were joined by church bishops, trade union officials, and the leaders of the all the main political parties (still officially banned), including the Peronists and the radicals, the two major opposition groupings. They had all volunteered to go to the islands to show their solidarity with the armed forces at a time of ''national need.''

Before the invasion, Argentine President Leopoldo Galtieri was facing growing unpopularity because of the regime's cautious return to democracy and the country's economic problems. The invasion has converted him into a national figure comparable with the ''caudillos'' that have stirred the imagination of the Argentines in different phases of Argentine history.

The junta has reaped much political capital out of the Falklands invasion and knows that immediate withdrawal of its troops or a renouncing of its sovereignty claims over the islands is unacceptable politically. ''We shall defend the islands at whatever cost,'' said Gen. Alfredo Saint Jean, Argentina's interior minister.

The Argentine military buildup and the bellicose rhetoric respond to that emanating from London at the moment. The clear inference from both sides is that before they allow Mr. Haig to mediate successfully between them they must first approach the negotiations from a position of strength.