Falklands wait for Argentine `invasion'

INHABITANTS OF the Falkland Islands were yesterday bracing themselves for the arrival of the first Argentines since the 1982 war, following an agreement that lifted barriers to visitors. Thirty journalists were due to land at RAF Mount Pleasant, the windswept air base an hour's drive from Stanley.

The deal between London and Buenos Aires gave Argen-tina a tenuous foothold on the islands, which it claims as its territory, and in exchange it recognised the local government and said it would help with fisheries conservation. But the agreement has left the islanders bitterly divided.

Since the deal, signed last month in London, Argentines have been free to visit the islands, though there have been earlier visits by next-of- kin to grave sites. The Chilean airline Lan Chile has lifted a ban on flights imposed because of the Pinochet affair, and later this year will make a stop in Argentina before flying to the islands.

Amongst those who have said they want to visit are footballer Diego Maradona, who has said he wants to prompt the islanders to change their minds on sovereignty. "We agreed that the visit by Mr Maradona was not likely to have a positive influence and his most recent comments to the media appear to support that judgement," said the Falklands Governor, Donald Lamont. "But he can come here as any ordinary Argentine visitor can come now, neither expecting nor receiving any special treatment."

The deal sparked protests and flag-burning in the Falklands, where opinion is sharply divided on Argentine visits and direct flights. But the islands' councillors, who participated in the negotiations, have defended the deal.

"There is a major difference between the Seventies and now," Councillor Mike Summers told a recent meeting, according to the Falkland Islands News Network. "One of these has to do with the fact that there is no longer a military dictatorship in Argentina. They have a form of democracy in its infancy. The second has to do with the British government which, for the first time ever, is about to enshrine the right to self determination for every overseas territory."

But the negotiations were held up because of Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's preoccupation with Kosovo, and then foreshortened by his desire for a quick result, according to councillors. "It took a considerable time to engage the interest of the Foreign Secretary," said Lewis Clifton, a councillor.

Presidential elections on 24 October meant that the political window in Argentina was limited. President Carlos Saul Menem, who cannot stand again, had said he wanted the Argentine flag to fly on the islands by the end of his term in office. He had also said that he wants to be on the first direct flight between Argentina and the islands on 16 October, but the British government has told him this is inadvisable because of strong feeling on the islands.

"The Government has the right to refuse undesirable persons," said Mr Summers. "And I would suggest that President Menem would come in that category."

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