Menem's flowers mark the end of the bitter years as the Last Post sounds

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The Independent Online
SIXTEEN YEARS of bitterness over the Falklands war ended with handshakes and tears yesterday as President Carlos Menem laid a wreath in memory of the 258 British servicemen who gave their lives to liberate the islands.

In a moving ceremony at St Paul's Cathedral, the Argentine president paid his respects to those who fell while, in the shadow of Nelson's tomb, his daughter Zulema wiped away tears with trembling hands.

The ceremony was the highlight of a remarkable day of reconciliation, an occasion when Prince Andrew, a Sea King helicopter pilot during the conflict, stood side by side with Vicecommodoro Gustavo Faguet, who attacked British ships in Mirage fighters.

Watched by veterans and dignitaries, including Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, his shadow Michael Howard and Sir Rex Hunt, the former Governor of the islands, President Menem laid the blue and white wreath at the foot of the imposing grey plaque commemorating the victims of the war.

From the Book of Mica, the Canon of the Cathedral, the Venerable George Cassidy, read: "They shall beat their swords into ploughshares .... nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more", before a lone trumpeter sounded the Last Post and the gathering observed a minute's silence.

It was a ceremony lasting just 15 minutes, but its symbolic significance was not lost on those who attended. Outside, the Prince and the president joined in a long, two-handed shake while veterans from both sides offered a united front.

Lance Corporal Denzil Connick, 41, lost a leg in the battle for Mount Longdon, but he grasped President Menem's hand enthusiastically at the end of the service.

"A few years ago, it would have been impossible for me to even think about shaking the hand of the president of Argentina," he said. "But things change and people change." Major Juan Eduardo, who fought behind British lines in special forces during the Falklands war, said: "I feel a lot of respect for British soldiers, because they're soldiers just like me."

Without the support of those who took part in the conflict and those who lost loved ones, political gestures would have seemed meaningless. Yesterday, however, there were clear signs that reconciliation was universally welcomed.

Rita Hedicker, 63, lost her son, Peter, 22, a private in the third Battalion the Parachute Regiment, also during the battle for Mount Longdon. She was embraced warmly by Major Joun Elmiger, a veteran of the same battle, and she bore no grudges.

"I was very pleased to meet the Argentinians, particularly Major Elmiger," she said. "He was only doing his job the same as my son. I prayed for them both and I prayed for all the other mothers on both sides who lost their sons. It was a very moving service." After the ceremony, Mr Menem and Zulema were driven to Buckingham Palace for lunch with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, a meeting that few could have foreseen while the Windsors were fretting over the safety of Prince Andrew during the conflict.

The meal, taken in the white and gold 1844 Room, was a cordon bleu offering of lobster and veal, with a selection of fine wines. Contrary to rumour, however, Zulema did not try to break with tradition by kissing the Queen.

The President's daughter, with her tight suits and short skirts, is rapidly becoming the media darling of the visit.

Throughout the day, mention of the sovereignty of the Falklands was kept to a minimum - it is officially off the agenda. But, during a meeting with British and Argentine businessmen in the morning, Mr Menem said the search for a solution should be imaginative and peaceful.

Before an audience of politicians, diplomats and businessmen at Lancaster House in London last night, he reiterated that the conflict should never have taken place. And, although he said he "deeply regretted" it, he retained the "firm conviction" in the legitimacy of his country's claim to the islands.

He said Argentina was now a very different country from that led by the junta which invaded the Falklands in 1982. Emphasising the doubling of trade ties between the countries, worth pounds 735m last year, he added: "My visit here is truly guided by a spirit of peace and reconciliation. Without forgetting the past, I now look towards the future.

"This does not mean that the controversy in the South Atlantic does not subsist. As President of Argentina, I reiterate our firm conviction in the legitimacy of our historic rights."

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