Regional leaders back Argentina on Falklands

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Latin American and Caribbean nations backed Argentina's claim of sovereignty to the Falkland Islands in a growing dispute with Britain over plans to drill for oil off the islands in the Atlantic.

At the Rio Group summit of 32 countries hosted by Mexico, Argentina presented a statement quoting Mexican President Felipe Calderon as saying that "the heads of state represented here reaffirm their support for the legitimate rights of the republic of Argentina in the sovereignty dispute with Great Britain".

Mr Calderon did not speak directly about the matter.

Britain and Argentina have long disputed sovereignty of the Falkland Islands - known as Las Malvinas in Latin America - and fought a war over them in 1982.

The issue was relatively calm until a British oil exploration company recently announced drilling plans there.

Desire Petroleum PLC said yesterday it has started drilling for oil about 60 miles north of the disputed Falkland Islands, despite strong opposition from Argentina. The country claims the south Atlantic islands as its own.

"The well is being drilled to an estimated target depth of circa 3,500 metres," the company said in a statement. "Drilling operations are expected to take approximately 30 days."

The dispute over the Falklands dates back to the 19th century, when the islands were seized by the British.

Argentina has sought their return ever since, invading in April 1982 and holding them until June, when British forces retook the territory.

Full diplomatic relations were restored in 1990 and both sides have since largely agreed to disagree on the issue of sovereignty.

But anger over the issue still lingers and has been exacerbated by the prospect that Argentina could lose out on mineral wealth discovered offshore.

Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez ruled out any plans to try to keep the British boats or rigs out. "We do not believe in methods like blockades," she told reporters.

One of the primary goals of the two-day summit being held in the Caribbean beach resort of Playa del Carmen is the formation of a new regional group that would include all nations in the Americas - except the United States and Canada.

A working summit document suggested diplomats are still working on a name for the organisation, with the Latin American and Caribbean Community being one possibility. The group is expected to be established by 2011.

Mr Calderon also said the nations gathered at the summit pledged to donate 25 million US dollars to help Haiti recover from a devastating January 12 earthquake.