Britain "concerned" about Falklands ship ban

LONDON Wed Dec 21, 2011 11:03am EST

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LONDON Dec 21 (Reuters) - Britain has condemned a move to ban fishing boats flying the Falkland Islands flag from many South American ports - a step analysts say is part of Argentina's intensifying campaign to undermine Britain's hold on the islands.

The South American trading bloc Mercosur announced the ban at a summit in the Uruguayan capital Montevideo on Tuesday.

"We are very concerned by this latest Argentine attempt to isolate the Falkland Islands people and damage their livelihoods, for which there is no justification," a British foreign office statement said on Wednesday.

Falklands-flagged ships will not be allowed to dock at ports in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. The ban will not include British-flagged civilian ships that supply the islands, although it will apply to military vessels.

Robert Spink, president of the archipelago's chamber of commerce, told Reuters by phone the ban would affect 20 fishing vessels that fly the Falklands flag, 19 of which jointly operate with Spanish licences.

Britain has controlled the islands since 1833 and fought a two-month war with Argentina over the territory it claims and calls the Malvinas in 1982, resulting in the deaths of 255 British and 649 Argentine soldiers.

Argentina objects to plans by British oil explorer Rockhopper to develop the Sea Lion well, the first oil discovery in the islands.

But Spink said the Mercosur decision would not have any impact on oil exploration in the area.

"Exploration companies such as Rockhopper operate from the UK and are not involved with South American countries so this decision will not have any effect," he said.

"Perhaps the only effect is one of punishment by Argentina of the 3,000 inhabitants of the Falkland Islands," he added.

Rockhopper declined to comment.

"BETWEEN SPAT AND ESCALATION"

Research Fellow George Grant at the British-based think-tank the Henry Jackson Society said: "I think the Mercosur decision to ban Falkland flags is somewhere between a spat and a more serious escalation.

"This latest move is part of a long-running and increasingly widening campaign, specifically to other South American states, of delegitimising the UK's claim to the Falkland Islands."

He said there was no risk of military action, but expected to see further joint action by South American countries in the area to put pressure on the UK's claim to the archipelago.

Celia Szusterman, director of the Latin America programme at the British-based research body Institute for Statecraft, told the BBC the latest dispute was connected with the approach of the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War.

"Argentina has for the past eight years been trying to pursue a very aggressive diplomatic offensive for the Falklands and to recover what they call the Malvinas and Argentina is now temporary chair of the Mercosur regional arrangement," she said. (Editing by Andrew Roche)

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