Falkland Islands dispute heats up

Argentina is stepping up efforts to reclaim the islands over which it lost a 1982 war to Britain.

It seems an unlikely scrap of land to squabble over. Treeless, remote, and blasted by the full fury of the South Atlantic, the Falkland Islands are home to less than 3,000 people, and thrilling only to those who love nature, big winds, and spectacular isolation.

But Britain and Argentina considered the archipelago important enough to fight over in 1982. And suddenly, unobtrusively, a new row is simmering over the British-owned outcrop, known universally in South America as Las Malvinas.

Argentina has grumbled about British ownership of the islands, situated around 350 miles from its southern coast, ever since British forces routed Argentine troops in a 73-day war a generation ago. But recently, top Argentine officials have started laying serious claim to the Falklands once again.

In April, Argentina's president, Nestor Kirchner, marked the anniversary of the war's inception by saying the islands "must be a national objective of all Argentines," adding that "we must recover them for our homeland."

In June, he announced the creation of a top-level parliamentary group dedicated to winning back the disputed islands, which Argentina claims were forcibly seized by British settlers in 1833.

"The Falklands question is one of marked importance for our country, not only because it implies an evident territorial disintegration, but because of the historical significance this anomaly has for our country," says Jorge Argüello, a pro–Kirchner congressman and head of the new Parliamentary Observatory on the Falklands Question.

At the same time, the foreign minister, Jorge Taiana, used a private audience with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to request his intervention in a new round of talks on the islands' sovereignty. Tensions are set to heighten as Britain prepares a major celebration for next year's 25th anniversary of the war.

British response to renewed friction

The response from Britain – and from Falklanders – has been unequivocal. Britain says that as long as the islanders want to remain part of Britain there can be no question of ceding sovereignty, despite the annual £100 million ($191 million) bill of keeping 1,200 soldiers on the islands.

Sir Nicholas Winterton, a British MP who chairs a parliamentary group on the Falkland Islands, says Mr Kirchner's "aggressive comments" were "without foundation and totally unjustified. The comments are no doubt for internal domestic purposes," he says, a reference to upcoming elections in Argentina.

And the islanders apparently have no wish to cede their British status. "We are happy with our state as overseas territory of the [United Kingdom]," says Sukey Cameron, the islands' representative in London. "We are a British community and we value and wish to retain those links."

Britain has a dozen or so overseas territories like the Falklands. It ceded Hong Kong back to China in 1997, but officials stress that that was a different case as the territory had been leased in the first place. Of the others, only Gibraltar is disputed, but even there Britain and Spain and the Gibraltarians manage to conduct normal relations while a solution is worked out.

That is not the case with the Falklands. Argentina is geographically closest to the islands, and yet there are no flights, no trade, and very few visitors from the country. Given the small population, the islanders are reliant on visiting specialists – obstetricians, opticians, even piano tuners and stand-up comedians – to fill in the gap in the Falklander skills base. Such services could be provided from Argentina, but instead all fly the 16,000-mile round trip from Britain.

'Economic warfare'

The economic potential of the islands has not been lost on Argentina. It has repeatedly protested to Britain about oil prospecting and fishing activities in the waters around the islands. The fisheries, professionally run, have proved so lucrative in fact that several Falklanders have become millionaires in recent years. In response, the Argentines have strongly criticized the Falklands government for extending commercial fishing permits from one to 25 years.

Some Falklanders suspect that this time Argentina might use economic tools rather than military hardware to achieve its ambitions. A recent decision to ban charter flights to the Falklands, for example, is estimated to be costing the islands' booming tourist industry up to $3 million a year.

"They want to damage our economy. They want to go for trade and economic warfare rather than military warfare," says Tim Miller, president of the Falklands' chamber of commerce.

Yet, Congressman Argüello denies that Argentina's renewed interest in the Falklands is economically motivated, maintaining that the government's current policy merely reflects "the strong sensitivity" of public opinion toward the islands. The dispute is most keenly felt in the south of the country, home to many of the veterans of the 1982 Falklands War as well as President Kirchner.

But many younger Argentines don't share the current government's enthusiasm.

"These islands have already caused years of dispute," says arts student Magdalena Bustamante, who was 2 years old when the 1982 conflict broke out. "Even though they are geographically with our territory, I don't think that is sufficient reason for us to appropriate them."

Buenos Aires resident Fernando Arias says most Argentines are not bothered by the issue. But he adds: "Should the British give it back? I would say 'yes' because we feel the British stole them from us. Should they be English? Not more than Hong Kong or Gibraltar."

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