* Argentina, Britain went to war over the islands in 1982
* Tensions have escalated with oil and gas exploration
By Andrew Osborn
LONDON, Feb 10 (Reuters) - The British government minister responsible for the Falkland Islands began his first visit to the contested territory on Monday and an angry Argentina accused him of high-handed colonialism.
Argentine forces invaded the Falklands in 1982, prompting Margaret Thatcher, then British prime minister, to dispatch a naval task force to retake them in a short but bloody war.
Argentina has stepped up its calls for Britain to discuss the islands’ sovereignty in recent years, saying the territory, known as the Malvinas in Spanish, rightfully belongs to it. The campaign has coincided with oil and gas exploration in the area and a deterioration in the Argentine economy.
Hugo Swire, minister of state at the British Foreign Office, began a four-day visit on Monday, reasserting London’s right to administer the islands.
“The people of the Falkland Islands are British because they have chosen to be so,” he said in a statement. In a referendum last year, 99.8 percent of the some 3,000-strong population voted to remain a British Overseas Territory.
Swire will meet local lawmakers and officials to discuss the Falklands economy and will visit cemeteries where those killed in the 1982 conflict on both sides are buried.
In a message to the islanders published via Penguin News - the archipelago’s only newspaper - Swire said Argentina’s refusal to include the islanders in any talks about their home was “doomed to failure”.
“A nation of some 40 million pressuring a community of 3,000 in the 21st century is not an edifying sight,” he said.
“Let me be clear and unambiguous: if the Government of Argentina believes that hostile rhetoric and threats against the livelihoods of the Falkland Islands people will pressure the UK into negotiating the sovereignty of the Falklands - above the heads of the people whose home it is - then it is sorely mistaken.”
Argentina’s Congress last year passed a law introducing criminal sanctions for the “illegal exploration” of hydrocarbons on the Argentine continental shelf, including 15-year jail sentences and large fines.
The Falkland Islands lie within the continental shelf.
Daniel Filmus, Argentina’s Secretary for the Malvinas Question, issued an angry response to Swire via his country’s embassy in London.
He accused Swire of speaking with the ”characteristic high-handedness of the colonial tradition that he upholds“, and Britain of wanting to ”pillage the wealth of hydrocarbons, minerals, fish stocks, water and biodiversity that belong to 40 million Argentines.
“Herein lies the reason for having established a disproportionate military presence. As Argentines, we shall continue to use all legal and diplomatic means available to defend our riches,” he said. (Editing by Mark Heinrich)