Invasion talk: Argentine mood turns gloomy

By , Latin America correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

There is a decidedly pessimistic mood here as United Nations peace talks on the Falklands dispute resume in New York.

Argentine officials expect little progress in the new round of UN talks, but also, and perhaps more important, they strongly expect a British move to land forces on the Falklands this week.

With weather in the South Atlantic worsening by the day, a British landing, if it occurs, must come within the next several weeks -- the sooner, the better, say military analysts.

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For the past 60 hours, stepped-up British air and sea bombardment of the Falklands, bringing the weight of British attack to many parts of the islands that were previously untouched, has caused serious damage to Argentine installations.

Argentine military communiques minimize the damage, while admitting the attack.

But there is strong evidence that British pounding of the islands has been effective. British commandos spent seven hours on Pebble Island, one of the northern islands in the Falklands grouping, May 15, damaging or destroying 11 Argentine aircraft and a sizable ammunition dump. The Argentines say only three aircraft were destroyed and that other damage at the site was minimal.

All this British bombardment is aimed at softening up the dug-in Argentine positions on the islands and at probing for weak spots. The bays, inlets, and rugged Falklands coast make for a coastline that is said to be longer than Britain's -- a coast that will be extremely difficult for the Argentines to defend.

Argentine Foreign Ministry officials say the British are stalling in the UN talks in order to give the British military time to land forces on the islands, raise the British flag, and present a fait accompli of British reoccupation to UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar.

Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Mendez, for his part, again accused the British of ''intransigence'' in the negotiations.

He added that Argentina is always prepared to negotiate to avert war -- but he gave no indication that Argentina would in any way retreat from its determined stand on Argentine sovereignty over the islands. As always, this is the untouchable position that in the Argentine view must be accepted by all concerned.

That Britons might consider this view as an intransigent position is lost on Argentines.

What is not lost on them, however, is the stepped-up British attack on their Falklands positions and a growing awareness of what their Falklands adventure, which began with their April 2 seizure of the islands, is costing them.

The names of places attacked, reads increasingly like a gazetteer of the islands: not only Port Stanley (called Puerto Argentina by the Argentines) and Port Darwin, which have been under attack for three weeks, but also places like Fox Bay, Pebble Island, and Puerto Calderon.

Equally important have been British attacks on Argentine supply vessels in the Falkland Sound (San Carlos Straits to Argentines), which divides East and West Falkland.

Two Argentine vessels were hit Sunday -- the Rio Carcarana, which was set afire with its crew taking to lifeboats, and the Bahia de Buen Succeso, which was damaged. These attacks follow last week's earlier raid on another vessel, apparently the Isla de los Estados. It exploded, according to British sources, and Sunday Argentina said remains of the ship had washed ashore in the Falklands.

The Argentine losses are serious. The Rio Carcarana, a 10,000-ton ship built in Yugoslavia in 1962, was the first Argentine vessel to run the British blockade of the Falklands, arriving April 30. It remained in Falklands waters, however, because of the admitted effectiveness of the blockade.

Argentine military officials are clearly worried about their present materiel losses -- and future losses if the conflict escalates as they expect.

This past week, Argentina added three Brazilian patrol aircraft to the Air Force, and this week a number of South African helicopters began arriving. Originally designed to serve as patrol craft on oil exploration duty, the copters are being regeared for long-range duty, perhaps as rescue craft.

Argentine military officials are concerned to some extent about the military's ability to control all parts of the Falklands grouping. The extensive coastline is too much for the 10,000 soldiers on the Falklands to patrol with total effectiveness.

And as the British damage patrol aircraft on the ground, the Argentine position, of course, becomes more difficult.

But these same Argentine officials are convinced that Britain will have a difficult time trying to recapture the Falklands. The Argentines expect the size of any British landing force to be less than needed to cope with Argentine military muscle on the islands.

The British fleet in the South Atlantic is thought also to have serious limitations -- and, according to Luis Maria Maiz, editor of the magazine Armas y Geoestrategia, one factor is reduced air power.

In his view, the British fleet is adapted to the needs of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and not to the type of long-distance operations required to perform well in the South Atlantic.

He thinks, however, that the British will attempt a beachhead. A beachhead will be difficult to maintain because ''the British do not have sufficient manpower,'' he says. As a result, it ''will not be able to provoke serious damage to Argentine positions.''

Still Mr. Maiz and other Argentine military specialists believe a British landing is imminent -- probably this week.

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