CORRECTED - Argentina claims regional support in Falklands row

Tue Feb 23, 2010 7:26am EST

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(Corrects second paragraph to show that Britain controlled Falklands before 1982)

By Miguel Angel Gutierrez

PLAYA DEL CARMEN Feb 22 (Reuters) - Argentine President Cristina Fernandez said Latin American leaders backed her objections to oil exploration in the British-controlled Falkland islands, as the first well began drilling on Monday.

Argentina, which has claimed the South Atlantic islands since Britain established rule in the 19th century, invaded them in 1982. After a two-month war, it was forced to withdraw, but still claims the archipelago and says oil exploration by Britain's Desire Petroleum DES.L is a breach of sovereignty.

"There continues to be systematic violation of international law that should be respected by all countries," Fernandez told the opening session of a regional summit near the Mexican resort town of Playa del Carmen.

"In the name of our government and in the name of my people I am grateful ... for the support this meeting has given to our demands," Fernandez said.

Venezuelan Hugo Chavez addressed Britain's Queen Elizabeth directly on his weekly television program telling her to return the Falklands, known as the Malvinas in Spanish, to Argentina. He repeated his claims late Sunday when he arrived in Mexico for the summit.

"We support unconditionally the Argentine government and the Argentine people in their complaints," Chavez told reporters at the airport. "That sea and that land belongs to Argentina and to Latin America."

Escalating the dispute, Argentina formally objected to British-led drilling plans near South Atlantic Islands, and said it would require all ships from the Falklands to obtain permits to dock in Argentina.

While the Falklands are not an oil producer and have no proven reserves, oil companies are betting offshore fields may hold billions of recoverable barrels of oil.

Desire Petroleum said it broke ground at a well on its offshore "Liz" prospect, which could contain up to 400 million barrels, although there is a possibility the exploration will recover nothing. (Additional reporting and writing by Mica Rosenberg; editing by Chris Wilson)

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