Why there's an argument over the Falkland Islands

When the British weren't watching, an army of Argentine soldiers sailed 400 miles from their own coastline in South America and took over the Falkland Islands.

These islands are off the southern tip of South America in the Atlantic Ocean.

For 150 years the people who have lived in these barren, wind-swept islands have belonged to Britain.

The Falkland Islanders have British names. They eat British food. Until the Argentines came and put up their own flag this month, they flew the British flag , known as the Union Jack.

Although they live 8,000 miles from Britain, the islanders still regard themselves as British. That's the problem.

Argentina, which once controlled the islands for a short period a long time ago, wants the islands to be run by Argentina, not by Britain. The British won't give up the islands. That is why Argentina sent soldiers to take over the colony to show everyone that it now belongs to Argentina.

This made Britain angry. To show it was serious that it wanted the islands back, it sent its navy, known as the Royal Navy, to the area.

The Falkland Islands is only one of many British colonies around the world. At one time Britain owned not only little islands, but also whole countries. At the height of its power, approximately 100 years ago, one-quarter of the world's population was living under the British flag. For this reason it was said that ''the sun never sets on the British Empire.'' Among the many countries that belonged to the former British Empire were India, Australia, Nigeria, Cyprus, Guyana -- each in a different continent.

All these countries have now become independent. This means they rule themselves. About 45 former British colonies have now become independent.

The last two to go their own way were Zimbabwe, which used to be known as Rhodesia, and Vanuatu. Vanuatu, which used to be part of the New Hebrides, and Zimbabwe became new countries in 1980.

That leaves only about 17 little colonies still left under the British flag. Some of the more interesting of those colonies are:

Hong Kong: The most densely populated of the remaining British colonies. More than 5 million people live in this Crown Colony, which will be handed back to China in 1997.

Gibraltar: Famous for its huge rock. It is situated in the Mediterranean. Britain and Spain have been arguing over who should control it for a long time.

Pitcairn Islands: The island with the smallest permanent population. Only 61 people live here, all of them followers of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. People in this small community in the Pacific Ocean are descendants of the mutineers of the Bounty, an incident in history that was made into a famous movie.

St. Helena Island: More than 1,000 miles off the west coast of Africa, this is considered the best known of all islands standing alone. Napoleon Bonaparte, one of France's greatest soldiers, who also became Emperor of France, died here in exile on May 5, 1821.

Places like the Pitcairn and St. Helena Islands are so tiny that they will probably always remain under the British flag. They are not big enough to stand on their own.

The Falkland Islands are also too small to stand on their own. But the British believe it is the islanders who must decide their own future, not the Argentines.

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