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St. Helena airport a key Falklands link

STANLEY, Falkland Islands, Nov. 7 (UPI) -- Britain's final go-ahead for a $400 million airport on St. Helena Island, the last exile home of defeated French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, was greeted in the Falklands as a much-needed lifeline for the beleaguered British territory claimed by Argentina.

Both Falklands and St. Helena are miles from London's central government but an airport on St. Helena will transform the island and provide a seven-hour link to Falklands -- reasonable when compared with air services to and from Europe.

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Currently the 47-square-mile island is accessed by a British postal service ship, which operates from Cape Town, South Africa.

Accessibility was an issue for bidders as well. Despite the size of the contract, only one bidder came forward.

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South African engineering group Basil Read would design, build and operate the airport.

"This is momentous news for St .Helena," St. Helena Gov. Mark Capes said, "It will give us the best chance we will ever have of reversing the economic decline of the last 50 years.

"Saints currently overseas will be encouraged to come back home and contribute to a growing economy," he said, referring to local citizens. "Getting on and off the island will be easier, quicker and more convenient for everybody."

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He said the airport will create jobs, encourage tourism and allow expatriates to return to their families more often.

The project will involve a small airport building, a short runway, connect roads, a small harbor terminal, ancillary works, as well as the installation of air-traffic control systems.

New technology called "engineered material arresting system" would allow the airport to receive larger aircraft on the short runway, likely to be a little more than 1 mile long.

Current plans call for the airport to be ready by 2015 -- the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Napoleon as a prisoner in exile following his defeat at the battle of Waterloo.

Both St. Helena and the Falklands are U.K. overseas territories. Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982 and was beaten back in a 74-day war but never gave up its claim on the islands.

Analysts said the St. Helena government's decision to finally go ahead with the airport, after long delays, appeared driven in part by concerns over a continuing tense standoff with Argentina.

Officials, however, said St. Helena deserved to have its own airport to become self-sufficient.

An airport on the island would be cheaper than building a new ship that could adequately defend and support the territory, officials said, citing a ship's cost at $100 million. The airport project was halted two years ago by the previous Labor government just as contracts were to be signed to start work.

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St. Helena currently gets a $30 million annual cash inflow from London but analysts said it is by no means clear that subsidy will be discontinued, even though the government cited a future "saving" of that grant when justifying expense on the airport.

The island is about 3,812 miles -- seven hours and 40 minutes flight time -- from the Falklands. But, analysts said that was an improvement over the present state of isolation from London for both St. Helena and the Falklands.

More than 400 St. Helena natives live in the Falkland Islands. Since the standoff with Argentina began in 2009 Britain has built up its military presence in the South Atlantic.

U.K. forces destined for combat duty in Afghanistan and Iraq have been training in the Falklands. An airport in St. Helena would significantly facilitate traffic between the Falklands and destinations in the United Kingdom and beyond, analysts said.

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