Buenos Aires — With United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar pleading for more time in his talks with Argentina and Britain over the Falklands crisis, hopes for peace at midweek were fragile at best.
The undeclared war between Argentina and Britain in the South Atlantic was actually intensifying.
The British naval task force shelled targets in the Falklands Tuesday for the third straight day -- this time moving right up between East and West Falkland, the two main islands in the grouping.
And Argentina, countering the earlier establishment of British blockade zones in the South Atlantic, counterattacked with a new blockade zone of its own. It indicated that British ships and planes anywhere in the South Atlantic may be subject to attack.
If there were hopes that this intensification of the conflict could somehow be defused, they clearly centered on Mr. Perez de Cuellar's diplomatic skills -- and the aura of the UN. The secretary-general has been meeting regularly at the UN for a week with middle-level Argentine and British diplomats.
There is, however, little evidence of progress in these sessions.
Argentina still clings to its contention that Argentine sovereignty over the Falklands is irrefutable. Discussions must accept that basic fact.
The Argentines, however, have explored the possibility of some give on a time frame for recognition of this sovereignty. But these explorations are understood to be most tentative in nature. Argentina might be willing to accept a British statement that Argentine sovereignty would be recognized in, say, five years time -- 1987.
Argentina is quick to assert, however, that it is not seriously advancing the idea -- nor is it willing to commit itself to it. Rather, the concept is being floated as a point for discussion. One Argentine close to the UN talks says, ''There can be no certainty about anything in New York. We are simply exploring. So is London. So is Mr. Perez de Cuellar.''
At the same time, Argentine Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Mendez told newsmen late Monday that ''I maintain a moderate and reasonable hope'' that a diplomatic solution to the crisis is possible.
What more could he say?
As it turned out, he added something else that to many here is even more interesting. He said that he personally is looking beyond the current crisis to what follows -- when ''a redefinition of international relationships'' will have to be worked out.
Mr. Costa Mendez refused to further explain his words -- and there is much speculation here about what he meant.
Some think the foreign minister's words represent his feeling that diplomacy probably will not bring an early settlement to the dispute -- that increasing warfare is likely before diplomacy can have its day.
Others hanging on to every word by Mr. Costa Mendez, suggested his statement about future developments meant the contrary -- that he saw an early end to the crisis.
There is no way to determine just what he meant. It is possible the effort to read into his remarks some special meaning could be misleading.
One longtime observer of the Argentine scene said Tuesday: ''The trouble with dealing with Argentina is that you are dealing with a slippery eel and you can never get your hands on it long enough to figure out which way it is going.
''This country has yet to realize, and may never realize, that it violated the rules of decent behavior among nations by seizing the Falkland Islands in the first place. It assumes that possession is nine-tenths of the law and if it stalls for time, confusing the issue from day to day, it will somehow manage to win out in the end.''
Too harsh an indictment? Perhaps.
But a spokesman at the Casa Rosada (the Argentine White House) said this week , ''Time is on our side.'' He refused to elaborate, but added, ''It is the British who are intransigent. They simply refuse to accept Argentine sovereignty over the islands. They are wrong. They are ignorant. They are arrogant.''
Those words, coupled with Argentine official announcements -- including the Argentine blockade in the South Atlantic -- lead to the conclusion that there is little hope here for an early end to the crisis.
As the struggle intensified around the Falklands, some 1,100 miles away from Buenos Aires, this city began rationing energy by cutting down on nighttime street illumination. Calle Florida and Calle Lavalle, the two main downtown streets closed to vehicular traffic, were full of pedestrians Monday night. But the streets were darkened significantly.
This partial blackout could not, however, obscure rising prices for many goods -- blamed by some observers on the Falklands crisis. Food prices were up, as were prices soft drinks and wine.
Meanwhile, radio and television continued a barrage of broadcasts aimed at bringing the war into the homes of Argentines. ''Our noble soldiers'' began one radio broadcast Tuesday morning, ''are fighting for the fatherland in places we have never heard of, but we must support them without measure.''
Gone, however, are stories about alleged British strafing of Argentine survivors in the open sea. Now, the complaint is that Britain has not returned the survivors. ''It is a gross violation of human rights,'' said one commentator. ''Where is the international Red Cross? How can we live in a civilized world when there are such barbarians out there?''
The irony of that broadcast, of course, is that the Argentine military government has long been regarded a violator of human rights -- accused of killing at least 6,000 Argentines after it took power in 1976.
The British have announced they plan to return the Narwal survivors except for three -- two who died, and an Argentine Navy officer whose presence aboard the vessel leads Britain to believe the ship was spying on the British fleet in the South Atlantic.