Menem sees UK visit as step closer to Falklands goal

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The Independent Online

Latin America Correspondent

The meeting between John Major and the Argentine President, Carlos Menem, on the fringes of the United Nations New York birthday party, has been billed in Buenos Aires as a giant leap and a "breakthrough" for Mr Menem.

Not only did he get his longtime wish - an invitation, though hardly a hearty one, and deliberately imprecise, to visit London - but the President sees every step closer to Britain as a step closer to gaining the Falkland Islands peacefully.

"Menem's got his visa," said a headline in yesterday's daily Pagina 12. "Next year to London," said another paper, Clarin, which quoted Mr Menem as saying after the meeting that "we hope that some time in the not too distant future, sovereignty [over the islands] might be discussed."

Although London and Buenos Aires stressed sovereignty was neither on nor near the table in New York, most Falklanders believed it was most definitely on Mr Menem's mind. Many expressed fears that the Prime Minister may be worn down by Mr Menem's slick style and that he may head down "the appeasement road."

"We always believe there are hidden agendas at the highest level," said an islander and former councillor, Terry Peck. "I don't think Major's a very strong character but there's no question in our minds that Menem's a shrewd operator, and [Argentine Foreign Minister Guido] di Tella likewise. They've played on our nerves for many years."

Mr Menem has asked Mr di Tella to "persuade" the Falklanders that Argentine sovereignty would be in their best interests, according to a government source in Buenos Aires. One idea would be for joint sovereignty "until the islanders get used to the idea and realise that we have their best interests at heart," the source said.

Another idea, publicly acknowledged by Mr Menem and Mr di Tella, is to offer the islanders' "compensation", which was last estimated at $500,000 (pounds 310,000) per head for the 2,000 islanders, in return for accepting Argentine sovereignty. The Falklanders have rejected the idea.

"Sovereignty is not negotiable," Mr Peck said. "I'd never, ever, support joint flags and I think I can speak for 90 percent of islanders. There's no way people here would trust the Argentinians. But if there's oil in these waters, it's money that's going to talk. When oil is involved, 2,000 people don't count for one iota."

Mr Menem has been pushing aggressively for closer ties with Britain this year, particularly since his re-election to a second term in May. As far back as February, the daily Clarin said British Gas officials were pressuring Mr Major to invite Mr Menem to London.

The newspaper said thatBritish Gas and the Argentine national oil company, YPF, had reached a "verbal" agreement on oil exploration in Falklands waters. Confirming the deal, Mr Menem said that "this delivers enormous possibilities and advances to Argentina in the conflict for the Malvinas [Falklands]." London and Buenos Aires played down the oil deal report at the time, but in September the two governments signed an agreement for oil prospecting and exploration.

British diplomats said that Mr Major and Mr Menem had agreed also that experts from both countries should reach an agreement on regulating squid catches in the waters between the Falklands and Argentina. An initial meeting would be held in Buenos Aires next month, they said.