War still unreal in Buenos Aires

They are only 1,100 miles away. But to this city's millions, the Falkland Islands and the surging Anglo-Argentine crisis over them might as well be light years away.

The crisis is distant.

The possibility of expanding war over the islands remains unreal and improbable to most Argentines.

Yet over the weekend military authorities were telling the nation that a British attack on the Falklands can be expected momentarily.

In fact, the newspaper Clarin, quoting military officials, was on the street Sunday with a report that the British had already landed. (In London British military sources denied an invasion of the Falklands, but said its naval task force had bombarded military targets near the airfield outside Port Stanley.)

Hours later, the Argentines said the British had sunk an Argentine fishing boat and straffed a lifeboat bearing survivors. [The British Defense Ministry said, however, that two harrier jets had fired on the Narwal, a fish factory ship, suspected of surveillance activities against the British fleet. The Ministry said the vessel had apparently surrendered and was awaiting a boarding party of the Royal Navy.]

The miltary junta was pulling out all stops to whip up war sentiment among the population.

For many Argentines there is, in some measure, a surrealistic touch to the war being waged in the cold waters of the South Atlantic.

A mid-autumn touch of warm Indian summer weather, with only an occasional whiff of cool winds to warn of winter's approach, brought hundreds of thousands of Portenos, as local residents are called, into the streets, the parks, and the playgrounds of this sprawling city on Saturday.

It rained heavily Sunday, however, keeping people indoors. Many complained that scheduled soccer matches, the national pastime, were being postponed.

Soccer stirs people here as nothing else does. This is not a nation with war experience. Its gentle people, good immigrant stock from Italy and Spain, England and Germany, are simply unconditioned to what is taking place out in the cold waters of the South Atlantic.

There are hints of a dawning awareness of these events. After all, it has been five weeks since the Argentine military seized the Falklands and the British sent an armada to dislodge them. But this awareness is at best slow in developing.

Argentines also find it hard to measure the import of the peace talks, now under way at the United Nations in New York.

Those talks, Argentine authorities said, were going poorly because of ''British intransigence.'' In the eyes of the military here, the British are clearly the culprits if peace is not achieved.

All the British have to do, said a Foreign Ministry spokesman, is ''accept the basic fact of Argentine sovereignty over the Malvinas (the Argentine name for the islands) and peace is possible.''

But, of course, that is what the whole struggle is all about. The British do not accept Argentine sovereignty -- at least in the way it was exerted April 2 in the seizure of the islands.

To the Argentine government, however, sovereignty is almost Holy Writ. It is not even a precondition for talks; it is rather a fact. Everything else is negotiable. Sovereignty is not.

On this point, the overwhelming majority of Argentines agree. This may eventually prove the starting point for an awareness of the enormity of the Falklands crisis. But despite all the surging developments in the South Atlantic , the full impact of the crisis -- nay, even a partial impact -- has yet to stir the 12 million people in greater Buenos Aires.

Military spokesmen, meanwhile, took verbal potshots at the British decision to extend its air and sea blockade in the South Atlantic to within 12 miles of the Argentine coast.

''This shows the bellicose and belligerent attitude of the British,'' a spokesman complained.

Similar comment echoed through newspapers, radio, and television. And as the weekend began, the government staged a press conference with Navy Capt. Hector Elias Bonzo, commanding officer of the cruiser General Belgrano, which was sunk May 2 by a British submarine. The session, attended by 300 Argentine and foreign newsmen, was admittedly designed to stir support for the Argentine military.

Captain Bonzo, his voice rising in pitched fervor, let it be known that ''the Argentine flag still flies over my ship'' as it lies 4,000 meters below the surface of the South Atlantic.

But he refused to explain what the General Belgrano, a slow, noisy, and antiquated ship, built in 1938, was doing, according to some accounts, all by itself when hit by a British torpedo.

How much impact Captain Bonzo's emotional appearance has had on the Argentine public is hard to determine. Equally difficult to weigh is the impact of events like the General Belgrano's sinking.

They cannot be unaware of some subtle changes taking place here, however. The century-old drugstore, La Franco Inglesa, last week dropped ''Inglesa'' (English) from its name. The subway stop, Canning, is now ''2 de Abril'' after the date of the Falklands' seizure.

Yet British ways and British goods are still in favor here. An Argentine friend of this reporter, suggested the other afternoon in Spanish that we meet ''tomar el five o'clock en el Richmond Tea Room'' -- the traditional hour for afternoon tea in the cavernous emporium on Calle Florida where Argentines have congregated for generations to drink tea in British fashion.

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