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Falklands referendum: David Cameron calls on Argentina to respect the wishes of islanders after 99.8 per cent vote to stay British


David Cameron today called on Argentina to respect the wishes of Falkland Islanders, who have overwhelmingly voted to stay British.

After two days of voting the inhabitants of the South Atlantic archipelago decided by 99.8 per cent in favour of retaining their status as a United Kingdom overseas territory. Turnout from the electorate of 1,649, some of whom had queued in wind and rain yesterday to cast their ballots in Stanley, was 92 per cent.

The Prime Minister said this was "the clearest possible results there could be" and that he would always be there to defend the islands.

Speaking at 10 Downing Street just hours after the result of the referendum was announced, Mr Cameron said it sent a clear message to Argentina.

"They should take careful note of this result," said the Prime Minister.

"The Falkland islanders couldn't have spoken more clearly. They want to remain British and that view should be respected by everybody, including by Argentina."

The emphatic approval of the status quo of British sovereignty, which saw just three "no" votes cast out of 1,517,  is no surprise in a community which still bears the memory of Argentina's 1982 invasion and Britain's subsequent liberation in a brutal three-week land war.

As the result was announced in Port Stanley's town hall there was gasps at the scale of the yes vote. One spectator shouted: "Listen to us."

A few hundred metres at the street part beneath the Whalebone Arch, erected 80 years to commemorate a century of British rule of the Falklands, a fully party was in swing with islanders singing from printed sheets carrying the words to "God Save the Queen" and Rod Stewart's "I Am Sailing".

Port Stanley resident Alice Clarke said: "It's a brilliant, brilliant result. We hoped it would be convincing but the turn out and the percentage in favour is a very powerful statement."

It will be held up by islanders as proof of their right to self-determination and a counter-blast to the ongoing campaign by Argentina to corral Britain to the negotiating table for talks - rejected out of hand by London - in which Buenos Aires insists the Falklanders would have no right to participate.

The Argentine government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has made clear it does not recognise the referendum, insisting it has no legal validity.

However Mr Cameron insisted that the islanders were entitled to the right to self-determination.

"It is the clearest possible result there could be," he said.

"The Falkland Islands may be thousands of miles away but they are British through and through and that is how they want to stay. People should know we will always be there to defend them.

"We believe in self-determination. The Falkland Islanders have spoken so clearly about their future and now other countries right across the world, I hope, will respect and revere this very, very clear result."

The vote was greeted with jubilation in Port Stanley, where hundreds of residents braved squally snow showers to hold a street party on a green decked in the Falklands flags and red, white and blue bunting.

Members of the Falklands' legislative assembly will later today use the results from the plebiscite to lobby foreign governments. Meetings are due to be held in America, which has been criticised on the islands and in Britain for sticking rigidly to its longstanding formula of recognising the UK's de facto administration of the islands but stopping short of accepting the right of its inhabitants to self-determination. In London, there is an expectation that diplomats and ministers will use the referendum result to counter Argentine complaints.

Barry Elsby, one of the islands' elected legislators, told The Independent: "The point of this referendum was not for islanders to know what they feel. The message here is for the outside world. Argentina has told the world we don't exist but we have tonight made our views clear in the most emphatic manner possible.

"Argentina is afraid of this referendum because it shows that we have a voice on the international stage."

Mr Elsby hit back at criticism from Buenos Aires that the referendum amounted to nothing more than a publicity stunt.

He said: "This is not a stunt. It is publicity for the watching world because on behalf of our 3,000 people, the islanders have gone to the ballot boxes and made a statement about their future. That is not a stunt."

The high turnout for the vote will be seen as an indication of the determination of the islanders to make their views known as well as a signal of success for the complex logistical operation for the referendum put in place by the Falklands' government, which involved mobile polling stations touring the Camp or countryside beyond Port Stanley and the use of an aircraft to gather ballot boxes as well as visit voters in outlying islands.

A team of international observers monitoring the ballot gave the process a clean bill of health in an initial assessment of the conduct of the referendum. Brad Smith, the head of the ten-strong Referendum International Observer Mission, said: "We believe that this referendum represented the will and the spirt of the voters of the Falkland Islands."

Argentina and its president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who has led a voluble campaign against the islanders while asserting the case from Buenos Aires that London must negotiate over the Falklands' status, is likely to respond with indignation to the result and could expand its strategy of applying economic pressure on the islands.

Argentina's ambassador to London, Alicia Castro, last week refused rule out the imposition of new measures against the Falklands, which already include an attempt to squeeze the islands' tourist industry by banning cruise ships which call at Port Stanley from visiting Argentine ports and threats to restrict the lucrative squid catch which has funded much of the islands' development in recent years by expanding fishing in its own waters.

Mrs Castro said: "Let's wait and see."