As clouds melt, Falklands biggest battle expected

The sun has broken through the cloud cover that blanketed the Falkland Islands last week.

By Tuesday, the sun was shining brightly on the islands' snow-drenched hills, valleys, and peat bogs -- offering a bit of welcome relief to the Argentine and British armies massed against each other around Port Stanley, the island's capital.

The final battle for Port Stanley is expected any moment.

Relatively minor skirmishing between the contending forces took place Monday and again early Tuesday near Mt. Fitzroy and Mt. Kent, two commanding heights held by the British along the perimeter of Port Stanley.

In what appeared to be Argentine confirmation that the battle for Port Stanley would take place soon and could well prove a major engagement, the Argentine military announced conversion of two vessels to hospital ships and their readiness for dispatch to the Falklands. This brings to five the number of hospital ships in the Argentine fleet.

Here in Buenos Aires there is gloom over the prospect of a quick British victory over the 7,000-or-so Argentine defenders dug in around Stanley. Yet President Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri continues to say he is sure Argentina will win the war. Another high-ranking military officer explained to the Argentine newspaper La Razon that even if the British take Port Stanley soon, Argentine forces will come back again and again until they win.

Argentina has not officially responded to British Gen. Jeremy Moore's urging that Argentina surrender to save lives on both sides. There is little likelihood , in fact, that Britain will take Stanley without a fight.

Military officials here admit that General Moore's assembled forces are stronger than those of Argentine Gen. Mario Benjamin Menendez -- and that Britain has, to some extent, been able to overcome its logistical problems.

Argentina all along has claimed its own military position to be significantly more tenable than than of Britain, whose supply lines reaching 4,000 miles to Ascension Island and, ultimately, to Britain another 4,000 miles away.

But with the British massed around Port Stanley, that view has less credibility. There is begrudging recognition here that the British soldiers are better trained and better prepared for Falklands combat than the Argentine army, which is composed largely of conscripts.

There is also concern here that Argentine military tactics have been less than effective, while the British have employed the elements of surprise, tactical maneuver, and limited strategic position to good advantage.

The British use of surprise is headlined here as ''deception'' - but military sources privately admit it has been effective and is good military practice.

There is finally an awareness that only the inclement weather at this time of year in the South Atlantic has effectively delayed the British advance, particularly following the landings at San Carlos Bay.

Just why General Menendez, known as an able antiguerrilla strategist, did not deploy some of his infantry forces against the British beachhead at Port San Carlos remains a mystery. Also there are questions about the ease in which the British were able to sweep from their beachhead to Goose Green and Port Darwin, and then to Port Stanley without much resistance.

It is admitted here, however, that Argentine forces, caught increasingly on the defensive, have a tougher role than the British. The Argentines have to react to British advances and offenses, to the surprises that are so much a part of British strategy.

General Menendez now has his back to the sea at Port Stanley. What if the British launch diversionary attacks against the Argentines in addition to attacking them frontally? The element of surprise is clearly with the British and General Moore.

All this underlies the concern here that Port Stanley's days in Argentine hands are numbered.

There seems to be some effort on the part of Argentine officialdom to prepare the nation for its loss. But the effort is not yet in full gear.

President Galtieri stressed Monday that he has ''no doubt whatsoever about the final success of Argentina's rights in the Malvinas war.''

But for now the key concern is the imminence of major combat -- and the continuing belief that the islands belong to Argentina.

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