Argentina's call for return of Falklands causes a stir

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LONDON -- They have barely 3,000 inhabitants and far more sheep than people. They are more than 8,700 miles from London. For much of the year, they are bitterly cold and wind-swept, with only open sea and ice between them and Antarctica. President Ronald Reagan, who tussled with Margaret Thatcher over them as he rarely did on any other issue that engaged the two leaders, described them once as "that little ice-cold bunch of land down there."

But the Falkland Islands, the focus of a short war between Britain and Argentina in 1982, have been in the headlines again recently.

Politicians, newspapers and military leaders in both countries have been back at the barricades making the old arguments about who is the islands' rightful owner. Their arguments suggest what has long been evident: Nothing lasting was settled by the conflict that killed 255 British and 649 Argentine soldiers, sailors and airmen, as well as three civilians on the islands.

The British newspaper The Guardian heralded the latest outburst in an editorial on Friday that struck an exhausted note. "Here we go again," it said, tacitly acknowledging that the paper has been stuck in something of a rut of its own on the issue for years in its calls for a negotiated settlement.

As it was in 1982, few British politicians, and only a minority of mostly left-of-center opinion in Britain, have been ready to deviate from the unyielding stance that Ms, Thatcher adopted. She sent a British naval task force to recapture the islands after the Argentine military dictatorship of Leopoldo Galtieri dispatched troops to overrun the meager British garrison there.

To many on the British left, there is little to be served by rehashing the old arguments that were set off when President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina wrote an open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain on Thursday. It was published as an advertisement in The Guardian and another left-of-center British daily, The Independent.

The letter appeared on the 180th anniversary of Jan. 3, 1833, when an armed clash between the two nations took place on the islands. The episode has been settled on by Argentina as a watershed moment in a convoluted colonial story that goes back to the 16th century and involves competing claims to sovereignty by Britain, France, Portugal and Spain, which was the colonial power in Argentina until the country gained independence in 1816. In the statement that ran in the British papers, Ms. Kirchner asserted that "Argentina was forcibly stripped of the Malvinas Islands" -- Argentina's name for the territory -- in the murky 1833 episode. The clash involved a British sloop, an outgunned Argentine vessel and an Argentine commander's submission to a British demand that he remove the remnants of a mutinous Argentine garrison from the islands.

Britain has always rebutted Argentine claims that the people who were expelled included Argentine civilians, and it contends that British sovereignty was established by a much earlier settlement, dating to the mid-18th century.

The Guardian, in its editorial, dismissed this as political window dressing, ultimately irrelevant to the present dispute. Ms. Kirchner's letter, it said, had more to do with a populist bid to revive her slumping popularity in Argentina than "anything a British brig-sloop did 180 years ago." The newspaper added, "Any objective reader of the history of these islands would more likely conclude that this history is mixed, to say the least, and that the rival sovereignty claims are finely balanced."

The editorial urged the two countries to grapple with the issue diplomatically and to aim, initially, for an agreement on sharing in the bounty of fisheries and in recently discovered offshore oil reserves that some economists believe could turn into a 21st-century bonanza for the islands.

Mr. Cameron, though, is having none of it. Within hours of Ms. Kirchner's statement, he went before television cameras, saying that the future of the islands would be determined by the Falkland Islanders and that they would make their feelings known in a referendum to be held in March on the islands' political status.

That was the expedient Britain adopted last year when Ms. Kirchner campaigned in Argentina, and at the United Nations in New York, for a reopening of the sovereignty issue on the 30th anniversary of the 1982 war.

"As long as they choose to stay with the United Kingdom, they have my 100 percent backing," Mr. Cameron said.

For the British leader, it is a safe bet. About 70 percent of the islanders are of British descent, and visitors there say there is no more than a scattering of support for an Argentine takeover.

If there is a worry for Mr. Cameron, it lies in the possibility that Argentina, with popular passions heightened by Ms. Kirchner, may make another attempt to seize the islands by force, but British military commanders say they consider that highly unlikely, since Argentina's armed forces have been barely modernized since 1982.



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