* Britain: UK firms within rights to drill around Falklands
* Brown: islands protected, "sensible" talks will prevail
By Peter Griffiths
LONDON, Feb 18 Britain has taken steps to
protect the Falkland Islands but expects to resolve a dispute
with Argentina over drilling for oil in the South Atlantic
through talks, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Thursday.
Nearly 30 years after the two countries fought a war over
control of the British-ruled islands, Argentina is angry that
British firms are searching for oil and gas in the seas around
Brown said international law allows British firms to operate
freely in the area. Argentina has said their operations violate
its sovereignty, and announced this week that boats sailing from
its ports to the islands would need a permit.
"It is perfectly within our rights to be able to do this, I
think the Argentinians actually understand that," Brown told
local radio. "Sensible discussions will prevail on this."
Asked about a newspaper report that defence chiefs in London
had sent extra warships to the region, Brown added: "We have
made all the preparations that are necessary to make sure that
the Falkland Islanders are properly protected."
In 1982, Britain sent a naval force and thousands of troops
to reclaim the islands after Argentine forces occupied them.
About 650 Argentine and 255 British troops were killed in the
Argentina said earlier this month that it strongly opposed
energy exploration on its continental shelf. "What they're doing
is illegitimate ... it's a violation of our sovereignty. We will
do everything necessary to defend and preserve our rights,"
Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana said.
The row flared over the right to drill in the waters around
the islands, which geologists believe contain substantial energy
Desire Petroleum DES.L, the British oil explorer due to
begin drilling there soon, has said the dispute will not affect
its plans. Its shares have fallen 13 percent in the last month.
The share prices of three other companies exploring in the
region have also fallen in the last month, Falkland Oil & Gas
(FOGL.L) by 10 percent, Borders & Southern (BSTH.L) by 6.3
percent and Rockhopper Exploration (RKH.L) by 21.8 percent.
Britain has a permanent military presence on the islands,
which are called Las Malvinas in Argentina. There have been
sporadic diplomatic spats over issues such as fishing and
flights from the islands to mainland South America.
The British defence ministry denied reports that it was
sending more ships to the Falklands. It already has 1,076 troops
and four ships in the region.
"The government is fully committed to the South Atlantic
Overseas Territories, which include the Falkland Islands," it
said. "A deterrence force is maintained on the islands."
(Editing by Tim Pearce)