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Theresa May seeks progress on Falklands in letter to Argentine leader

LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Theresa May has written to Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri calling for restrictions on oil exploration in the Falklands Islands to be lifted and for more flights to the British-run islands, her office said on Thursday.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May visits a joinery factory in London, Britain August 3, 2016. REUTERS/Neil Hall

Argentina claims sovereignty over the South Atlantic islands it calls Las Malvinas, and relations between Buenos Aires and London have been strained for decades over the issue, culminating in a war in 1982 which Britain won.

May, who became prime minister in July, called for “more productive” relations between the two countries in her letter to the pro-business Macri, who took office in December as Argentina’s first non-Peronist president in more than a decade.

“Since the election of President Macri, we have been working towards improved relations with Argentina because we think that is in the interests of both our countries and the Falkland Islanders too,” May’s Downing Street office said in a statement.

In her letter, May said she hoped that where the two countries had differences, “these can be acknowledged in an atmosphere of mutual respect”.

She called for progress towards new flights between the islands, which are located about 435 miles off the coast of Tierra del Fuego in southern Argentina, and third countries in the region.

As things stand, a Chilean airline flies from Santiago to the Falklands every Saturday via the southern Chilean city of Punta Arenas, according to the Falklands Tourist Board. Once a month, the flight also stops in Rio Gallegos, Argentina, in both directions.

May also called for the removal of “restrictive hydrocarbons measures”, a reference to various attempts by Argentine authorities to restrict oil and gas exploration in the waters around the islands.

Tensions flared in June last year, under Macri’s predecessor Cristina Fernandez, when an Argentine federal judge ordered the seizure of millions of dollars’ worth of assets owned by drillers operating in the Falklands area.

The Argentine measures have not halted oil exploration, although efforts have been scaled down in recent times due to low oil prices on international markets.

The Falklands are inhabited by about 3,000 people, the overwhelming majority of whom say they wish the islands to remain a British overseas territory.

Argentina has rejected that argument, accusing Britain of deliberately settling people there over a long period of history to bolster an illegitimate sovereignty claim.

Reporting by Estelle Shirbon; editing by Stephen Addison