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LONDON, March 16 (Reuters) - Some of the largest banks and accounting firms in the world could be at risk of asset seizures if Argentina makes good on its threat to penalise companies which work with oil drillers exploring offshore the Falkland Islands.
On Thursday, Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman said Argentina planned to take administrative and legal action against companies providing logistical, financial and legal support to the search for Falklands oil.
This could mean trouble for banks like Barclays, HSBC, Standard Chartered and Bank of America unit Merrill Lynch, which provide services to Falkland explorers such as Rockhopper and Borders & Southern and which also have operations in Argentina.
"They (Argentina) certainly could try and bring claims against the companies in the Argentinean courts and they could also try and seize any assets that were actually in Argentina," said Catherine Robert, a specialist in international arbitration and cross-border litigation at law firm Hogan Lovells.
Verbal sparring over the sovereignty of the islands, which Argentina calls Las Malvinas, has heated up in recent months ahead of the 30th anniversary of Britain's expulsion of an Argentine invasion force.
Britain has vowed to defend the archipelago, saying it will negotiate sovereignty or oil rights only in the unlikely event that the 3,000 islanders want that.
Other bodies which provide services to Falkland explorers and which have Argentina operations include international accounting groups KPMG, BDO and UHY Hacker Young.
All these groups "need to pay closest attention to what's being said in Argentina and perhaps start talking to Argentinean lawyers," Robert added.
Rockhopper has discovered 350 million barrels of recoverable oil at its Sea Lion discovery and plans to start pumping oil by 2016 - moves that have sparked the ire of Buenos Aires.
Mark Jones, a Latin American specialist and chair of the department of political science at Rice University in the United States, said Argentina wanted to attack the explorers, which also include Argos Resources, Desire Petroleum and Falklands Oil and gas (FOGL), where they were vulnerable.
"They're signalling that they're going to do whatever it takes to put obstacles in the path towards developing the energy resources in the Falkland Islands," he said.
The banks and audit groups declined to say what they would do if it came to a choice between operating in Argentina or serving the explorers. Rockhopper, Desire, Borders & Southern, Argos and FOGL also declined comment.
A spokesman for the UK Foreign Office said the government would support companies that may be affected.
"We are studying Argentina's remarks carefully and will work closely with any company potentially affected to ensure that the practical implications for them are as few as possible," he said.
Oil services providers could also be at risk from Argentine actions, although the country is not a big market for supply vessels, offshore drilling rigs or other equipment being used at the Falklands.
This is partly because government moves to exert more control over the country's resource sector have deterred investment by foreign companies with offshore expertise.
Brazil has supported Argentina's claims to the islands. If it followed Argentina's lead and barred companies servicing the Falklands from operating in Brazil, this would be a bigger problem for the industry.
Brazil is emerging as one of the biggest offshore oil production centres in the world. In response to Argentine requests, it has said it would bar ships supplying the Falklands oil industry from its ports.
Diamond Offshore and Ocean Drilling have provided drilling vessels to the Falklands drilling effort and also have operations in Brazil.