Argentina stalls, Britain frets

The first few days after the fighting stopped on the Falkland Islands saw Britain and Argentina maneuvering for advantage - and for world opinion - on a diplomatic battleground.

Britain wanted to send almost 15,000 Argentine prisoners back to the mainland , and thus achieve its primary war aim of freeing the islands from occupation.

It was also anxious to begin garrisoning the islands, and for that, it needed to know that air and naval hostilities had ceased in the South Atlantic as well as on the ground.

Argentina, for its part, dragged its feet on giving an assurance that it was not in fact planning new attacks from air or sea. Forty-eight hours after the cease-fire and surrender by Argentine forces, Britain was still waiting for word.

It was a tense period. Diplomatic sources wondered whether it was the beginning of a protracted diplomatic tug of war between the two sides, with Argentina refusing to admit outright defeat and Britain impatiently demanding that it acknowledge failure to hang onto the islands.

The immediate British response to Argentina's post-surrender silence was to pile on pressure.

The British task force commander, Adm. John Woodward, warned in a statement released June 16 that as long as he had to defend against possible Argentine attacks, he simply could not keep the unexpectedly large numbers of prisoners ''dry and warm and fed.''

''Hundreds'' of the men could die from cold and hunger and exposure unless Argentina declared an ''immediate'' end to hostilities, he said, then added:

''There is no way I can shelter these numbers. Even feeding them for a week in present circumstances presents huge problems, not just of supplies but of cooking and hygiene as well . . . . There is a force 10 gale at sea and blizzards on the islands. . . .''

Government sources here emphasized that Argentina was to blame for putting so many men in a place where they could not be properly resupplied.

Sensitive to possible charges that Britain had neglected the prisoners, officials repeated that the task force had found the Argentines in poor condition.

Britain could provide enough food and water for the moment, but was seriously short of medical supplies and tents. About 4,500 tents had been among supplies lost when Argentina hit the container ship Atlantic Conveyor May 25. The ship sank May 31.

Officials strongly criticized Argentina in private June 16. ''Here we have a nation apparently indifferent to the fate of its own people and apparently willing to continue a state of hostilities,'' one senior official commented.

''If they (Argentina) don't give us clear assurances that all hostilities have ended, and prisoners begin to die, the world will really see what kind of people they are. . . .''

Foreign Secretary Francis Pym said June 16 Argentina now had a ''huge incentive'' to end all hostilities, to save the lives of its own troops.

Officials agreed they had little faith in the junta's word about anything. Asked if he would believe any word that might come from Buenos Aires, one official replied: ''Let's see what they say. . . . If they say it's all over, and try to attack they are in deep trouble.'' He would not elaborate.

On another front, BBC reported that Argentina had ceased jamming its radio reports to Argentina.

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