Argentina sends children to charm Falklands

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THE Falkland Islands have been invaded again. This time, however, the invasion force carries nothing more lethal than a Swiss army knife and dresses in nothing more threatening than hiking boots. It is, nevertheless, firmly committed to returning "the Malvinas" to Argentina.

The elite force, which landed last weekend, comprises Paula di Tella- Gall, 33, and her family. They are travelling "strictly as tourists" on Swiss passports - people with Argentine passports have been barred since the 1982 war. They can do so because Mrs di Tella-Gall's husband, Christian Gall, has a Swiss mother. But far more important is her father: Argentina's foreign minister, Guido di Tella.

The visit has split the Falklanders - the islands' council was divided over whether to admit the family - but nobody doubts that it is part of Mr di Tella's "charm offensive", designed to win the Falklands for Argentina peacefully. Nor do they doubt that the "grandchildren's invasion" (so called because the Galls have their four children with them) is connected to the Princess Royal's visit, starting tomorrow. If the British use their Royal Family to promote the national interest, why should republican Argentina not send one of its leading families on an ice-breaking mission?

Mr di Tella is a shrewd diplomat, with all sorts of schemes to convince the islanders that they would be better off under the Argentine flag. Last year, he floated the idea of cash incentives - no definite figures were mentioned, though Mr di Tella talked privately of pounds 100,000 for each of the 2,000 islanders. He was also, it is emerging, the driving force behind the Princess of Wales's visit last November to Patagonia, where she met the community of Welsh origin.

"He completely pulled the wool over the eyes of Downing Street, Whitehall and Buckingham Palace," a South American diplomat told the Independent yesterday. "The idea was: demonstrate that Brits can live under the Argentine flag, alongside Argentines, retaining their own language and culture, with no problem. And it worked."

Shortly after Diana's visit, Mr di Tella sent a Christmas card to 600 of the islanders, enclosing a picture of seven of his eight grandchildren, noting pointedly that all held more than one passport. (Two hold British passports because Mr di Tella's eldest son has a British wife.) "It may be that there will be an invasion of noisy little di Tellas in the future," wrote the foreign minister.

Some Falklanders suspect that Mr di Tella has stepped up his offensive since the arrival of the new Falklands governor, Richard Ralph, earlier this month. In his inaugural remarks, Mr Ralph talked what one islander described as "a new realpolitik". He said, according to one report, that they must "adapt to the new while preserving the best of the old".

So what did Mrs di Tella-Gall make of the Falklanders, and they of her? "Barbaro," said the foreign minister's daughter by telephone from her hotel in Port Stanley. Though the Spanish dictionary translates this as "barbarian, cruel, uncouth", she was using it in the slang sense, for which the rough English equivalent is "brill".

She went on: "We received a splendid welcome. It has been divine. We went walking, we saw penguins, dolphins and many kinds of birds, and we took pictures. We are here purely as tourists and no one has given any problems."

Indeed not, according to the Falklanders. "They'll obviously make a bit of propaganda out of it when she gets home," said Wendy Peck, a member of the islands' council. "If she chooses to use a passport that's not Argentinian, what does that say about her? We didn't want to be seen as the intransigent Falkland Islanders we usually get labelled. Hopefully, she'll go home and tell people how British we are."