* Argentina intensifies claim over British-ruled territory
* Islanders to vote on keeping sovereignty status quo
* Buenos Aires says referendum irresponsible, irrelevant
* Oil drilling fuels Argentine calls for negotiations
By Juan Bustamante
STANLEY, Falkland Islands, March 10 Residents of
the Falkland Islands vote on Sunday in a sovereignty referendum
aimed at countering Argentina's increasingly assertive claim
over the British-ruled territory.
Diplomatic tension between Britain and Argentina has flared
up more than three decades since they went to war over the South
Atlantic archipelago, and that has unsettled some of the roughly
With patriotic feelings running high, Falklands-born and
long-term residents will cast ballots in the two-day referendum
in which they will be asked whether they want to stay a British
Officials are expected to announce the result at about 8
p.m. (2300 GMT) after polls close on Monday.
A near-unanimous "yes" vote is likely, prompting Argentina
to dismiss the referendum as a meaningless publicity stunt. A
high turnout is expected, however, as islanders embrace it as a
chance to make their voices heard.
"We hope the undecideds, or the uninformeds, or those
countries that might otherwise be prepared to give the nod to
Argentina's sovereignty claim might have pause for thought after
the referendum," said John Fowler, deputy editor of the islands'
weekly newspaper, the Penguin News.
"This is an attempt to say 'hang on a minute, there's
another side to the story'."
In the low-key capital of Stanley, referendum posters
bearing the Falklands flag and the slogan "Our Islands, Our
Choice" adorn front windows. The post office has produced a line
of official stamps to mark the occasion.
Some islanders are the descendants of British settlers who
arrived eight or nine generations ago and the Falklands retain
an unmistakably British character despite a sizeable community
of immigrants from Chile and Saint Helena.
Residents say fiery remarks by Argentine President Cristina
Fernandez and her foreign minister, Hector Timerman, have fueled
patriotic sentiment on the islands, which lie nearly 8,000 miles
(12,700 km) from London and just a 75-minute flight away from
Tensions have risen with the discovery of commercially
viable oil resources in the Falklands basin and Fernandez's
persistent demands for Britain to hold sovereignty talks over
the Malvinas, as the islands are called in Spanish.
London says it will only agree to negotiations if the
islanders want them, which they show no sign of doing.
Timerman said last month the referendum had the "spirit of a
public-relations campaign" and the foreign ministry accused
Britain of pursuing "irresponsible initiatives in bad faith."
"This new British attempt to manipulate the Malvinas issue
through a vote by the population that it implanted is forcefully
rejected by Argentina," a ministry statement said, citing Latin
American support for Argentina's position.
MOMENTS OF DETENTE
Argentina has claimed the islands since 1833, saying it
inherited them from the Spanish on independence and that Britain
expelled an Argentine population.
The sovereignty claim is a constant in Argentine foreign
policy, but there have been moments of detente since former
dictator Leopoldo Galtieri sent troops to land in the Falklands
in April 1982, drawing a swift response from former British
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
A 10-week war, which killed about 650 Argentines and 255
Britons and ended when Argentina surrendered, is widely
remembered in Argentina as a humiliating mistake by the brutal
and discredited dictatorship ruling at the time.
No one in Argentina advocates another effort to take the
islands by force, but some analysts say the current tough
strategy may prove counterproductive by antagonizing islanders.
"Until Argentina is able to persuade the Falkland Islanders
to accept some form of Argentine sovereignty over the islands,
Argentina's efforts to reclaim them will be an exercise in
futility," said Mark Jones, chair of political science at
Houston-based Rice University.
In the islands, where plans for oil production to start in
2017 could further boost the flourishing local economy, most
residents are determined to maintain the status quo.
"Our best-case scenario is for them to drop their claim and
realize that we are a people, we are a country and we do exist,"
said Gavin Short, one of the Falklands assembly's eight elected
Asked if he thought that might happen, he said: "Not in my