Falklands to vote on keeping British rule

LONDON Tue Jun 12, 2012 3:00pm EDT

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LONDON (Reuters) - The tiny Falklands Islands will ask 3,000 inhabitants whether they want to stay part of Britain's self-governing overseas territories in a referendum designed to outflank Argentina's sovereignty claims to the South Atlantic archipelago.

Britain and Argentina waged a brief war over the disputed islands in 1982 and tensions between the two nations have escalated in the year of the 30th anniversary of the conflict as British companies have started to look for oil in the region.

The Falklands are among the scattered remnants of the once mighty British Empire, which towered over 19th century history but faded into decline after the Second World War.

Argentina argues it is absurd for Britain to have control of land so far from its own shores, accusing London of maintaining "colonial enclaves" and urging the British government to open sovereignty talks.

Britain has refused to do so, pointing out that the Falklands are self-governing and that talks could only take place if the islanders wanted them.

"I have no doubt that the people of the Falklands wish for the islands to remain a self-governing Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom," Gavin Short, chairman of the Falklands Legislative Assembly, said on Tuesday.

"So we have decided, with the full support of the British Government, to hold a referendum on the Falkland Islands to eliminate any possible doubt about our wishes," he added.

The vote is expected to take place in the first half of 2013. The announcement dovetailed with a visit to the islands by British Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne.

"It will give the Falkland Islands people the opportunity to send a clear message - not just to Argentina, but to the whole of the international community - that the islanders, and they alone, are masters of their fate," he said.

"Only the Falkland Islands people can determine how they wish to be governed."

Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez has launched a wide-ranging diplomatic offensive to assert her country's claims to the islands, known in Spanish as Las Malvinas.

The latest in a string of diplomatic spats over the islands saw Britain demanding an apology from Argentina for a TV advert for the London 2012 Olympic Games which showed an Argentina hockey player training in the Falklands.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Addison; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)

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