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CARACAS, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on Friday Britain's "desperation" for oil was leading it to flout international law in the Falkland Islands, and called on the British to return the islands to Argentina.
The Socialist Venezuelan leader said he supported Buenos Aires' protests over planned drilling in the Falklands, where companies including U.K.-based Desire Petroleum are planning to look for oil and gas in nearby offshore areas.
"The British are desperate for oil since their own fields in the North Sea are now being depleted," Chavez said in a televised speech. When will England stop breaking international law? Return the Malvinas to Argentina!"
Argentina still lays claim to the British-controlled South Atlantic Islands, known as the Malvinas in Spanish.
Britain, which became a large oil exporter in the 1970s following massive oil finds in the North Sea, has seen its output decline. It has been a net oil importer since at least 2007, according to U.S. Department of Energy figures.
While the Falklands are not an oil producer now and hold no proven reserves, oil companies are betting offshore fields may hold billions of recoverable barrels of oil.
Argentina led an unsuccessful military campaign in 1982 to eject the British from the islands.
Earlier this week, Buenos Aires formally objected to British-led drilling plans near the Falklands, and said it would require all ships from the islands to obtain permits to dock in Argentina.
Chavez said he spoke with Argentine President Cristina Kirchner earlier Friday to voice his support.
The leader of OPEC-member Venezuela, among the largest oil exporters in the Western Hemisphere, often claims foreign powers including the United States are covetous of Venezuela's own massive oil reserves.
"The English are desperate, the Yankees are desperate and here we have the biggest petroleum reserves in the world," Chavez said.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Thursday that international law allows British firms to drill the area, and expected dialogue with Argentina would resolve the dispute.
"It is perfectly within our rights to be able to do this. I think the Argentinians actually understand that," Brown told local radio on Thursday.
Asked about a newspaper report that defense chiefs in London had sent extra warships to the region, Brown said: "We have made all the preparations that are necessary to make sure that the Falkland Islanders are properly protected."
Buenos Aires said in 2007 any energy companies that had operated in the islands would be barred, fined or thrown out of Argentina. (Reporting by Joshua Schneyer and Patricia Rondon; editing by Todd Eastham)