Hurd heads for Argentina talks

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ON THE eve of the first visit to Argentina by a British Cabinet minister since the Falklands war, the Government yesterday restated its commitment to defending British sovereignty over the dependency.

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, will spend up to four days in Argentina during which he will hold talks with President Carlos Menem - who said on Sunday that 'the people and government of Argentina confirm their sovereignty rights over the Malvinas islands, south Georgias, South Sandwich and the maritime spaces between them'.

The Foreign Office yesterday riposted that Britain was 'committed to defending the right of the Falkland islanders to live under a government of their own choosing. The islanders have made it abundantly clear they wish to remain British and under British jurisdiction'.

It is more than 10 years since the end of the war, and almost three years since the resumption of diplomatic relations. The sovereignty issue has been placed under an 'umbrella', a British formula for agreement to differ whereby the question is not on the agenda of otherwise friendly relations. As one British diplomat said: 'If the Argentines think that if they get friendly with Britain, we'll get round to talking about the islands, they're dead wrong.'

British diplomats also say that what Mr Menem says to thrill public opinion is very different from his more tempered private comments. 'His speeches cause us heart failure sometimes, but then we go through the ritual of wagging the finger and he takes it back the next day,' one said.

What does arise in bilateral discussions is the equally insoluble fishing debate. Argentina has started issuing cut-price fishing licences, depriving the islanders of income from licences in their own waters. Since the fishing concerns the same stock - the profitable north-south migrating Ilex squid regarded as a Japanese delicacy - the islanders say the Argentine practice also risks depleting their stock for good.

Ronnie Sampson, the Chief Executive of the Falklands Islands government, told the Independent from Stanley that an Anglo-Argentine agreement reached last month on conservation to limit the number of licences was 'not adequate'. He added: 'It's not a poker game. The average man on the street is convinced this is an Argentine exercise to threaten the islands' economic future.'

The visit, largely aimed at boosting business links, comes at a time when Britain is going all-out to woo the whole of Latin America, which, as one diplomat put it, is 'no longer an economic basket case'. Mr Hurd, who goes to Chile next, did Mexico last year, and John Major visited Brasil. Concurrently with Mr Hurd's trip, the Foreign Office minister, Tristan Garel-Jones, is visiting Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia.