UK says Falkland drilling within international law

LONDON Tue Feb 23, 2010 12:40pm EST

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LONDON Feb 23 (Reuters) - Britain rejected Argentine objections to oil exploration off the disputed Falkland Islands on Tuesday, saying the drilling was within international law.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez said Latin American leaders backed her objections to exploration off the Falklands, known in Spanish as Las Malvinas, as drilling began on the first well on Monday [ID:nN22223803].

Argentina, which has claimed the South Atlantic islands since Britain established its 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.

"British sovereignty in respect of the Falklands is absolutely clear in international law ... There is no question about it," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said after giving a speech at the Demos thinktank in London.

"The exploration that is going on off the Falklands ... is fully within international law, fully based on precedent," he said.

Falkland islanders have the right to a decent life and to build their own economic future, he said.

Argentina formally objected to the plan to drill for oil near the islands and said it would require all ships from the Falklands to obtain permits to dock in Argentina.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said his country supported Argentina unconditionally. "That sea and that land belong to Argentina and to Latin America," he said, arriving for a regional summit in Mexico on Sunday.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he did not expect any direct contact between Brown and Fernandez on the issue and said Britain had given no thought to any military response. "There's nothing to respond to," he said.

The Falklands are not an onshore oil producer and have no proven onshore reserves, but oil companies are betting that offshore fields 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, though the exploration may recover nothing. (Reporting by Adrian Croft, Keith Weir; editing by Tim Pearce)

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