Argentina ups stakes in Falklands claim

Feb. 7, 2013 at 5:30 AM
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BUENOS AIRES, Feb. 7 (UPI) -- Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman raised the stakes in the diplomatic debate on his country's claim on the Falkland Islands during a London visit marked by outlandish statements, open rows with Britain and rhetorical own-goals.

It was a visit that reminded Britons that the Falklands would dominate more headlines in the coming months than a British Overseas Territory usually gets and that it would demand more investments of money and government time.

Argentina under military rule invaded the islands in 1982 but was beaten back by Britain in a 74-day conflict that caused more than 900 deaths. Buenos Aires revived its claim on the islands, which it calls Malvinas, after return to civilian rule.

As Argentine claims on the islands gained momentum last year Britain began building up naval defenses around the South Atlantic islands. But the column inches claimed by Timerman's visit to London pointed to a gathering danger that many in London had tended to dismiss.

British diplomatic analysts and officials say that Argentina's reasons for ratcheting up the Falklands sovereignty debate are internal. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has moved public attention from domestic economic and political concerns and silenced Argentine critics who say the Falklands debate is helping her consolidate power and push domestic problems away from the immediate agenda.

Fernandez secured re-election with a landslide victory in October 2011, polling nearly 54 percent, but is accused by critics of undermining Argentine democracy, a charge the government denies.

The president was most often in headlines last year over her increasingly strident Falklands pronouncements, verbal attacks on labor unions and news media and international organizations hesitant about Argentina's re-entry into markets while creditors from its sovereign default in the 1990s remain unpaid.

Latin American diplomatic support for her Falklands fervor hasn't been lacking but neighbors, including Brazil and Chile, have indicated they don't want to undermine their own ties with Britain and the European Union for Argentina's sake.

Fernandez drew neighbors into frequent pronouncements that either backed Argentina's claim or denied Britain and the Falklanders the benefit of their neutrality.

There were signs at Latin American international forums that more regional governments agreed the Falklands were a colonial legacy and not an independent entity exercising self-determination, albeit under British umbrella.

As a result, British diplomacy and military defense establishments have had to divert more resources to the South Atlantic, an area far from Britain's more pressing priorities, having to deal with multiple crises in West Africa, Egypt, Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, Iran and the EU rows over membership, sharing of powers between London and Brussels, finance and taxation.

Timerman's London visit got him headlines that Argentina hoped for and some that it didn't.

Timerman told the Guardian newspaper Argentina could be ruling the Falkland Islands within two decades but without the need to eject the Falklanders.

He predicted that pressure from other countries would force Britain to give way.

"I don't think it will take another 20 years," he said. "I think that the world is going through a process of understanding more and more that this is a colonial issue, an issue of colonialism and that the people living there were transferred to the islands."

British Prime Minister David Cameron argues the issue is self-determination. The Falkland islanders, who number fewer than 3,000, are to vote in March on their future and are expected to vote overwhelmingly to remain a British overseas territory.

Several countries including Britain, France, Spain and finally Argentina attempted to settle the Falklands after their discovery in 1600. In 1833, Britain seized the islands from Argentina.

In 1982, Argentina invaded the islands. Britain seized them back after a two-month undeclared war.

Timerman said if Argentina regains sovereignty the islanders will retain "their way of life, their language and right to remain British citizens."

But Timerman also caused a controversy by comparing Jewish settlers in occupied Palestinian territories and the Falklanders.

British lawmaker Alun Cairns said he was offended by the comments.

"Effectively, he (Timerman) dismissed the right of self-determination to the Falkland Islanders on the obscure reason that it's a territory rather than a country or a nation," Cairns said.

Dismissing the March referendum Timerman said "it is something that doesn't mean anything because if you ask the colonial people who came with a colonial power and replaced the people who were living in the Islands, it is asking the British citizens of the Malvinas Islands if they want to remain British."

Timerman likened it to asking only new Jewish settlers in the occupied territories if they want to remain Israeli.

Timerman was to have met with British Foreign Secretary William Hague but declined when Hague told him two Falkland Islands representatives would be present.

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