LONDON (Reuters) - A British minister will travel to the Falkland Islands in June to take part in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Britain’s recapture of the islands from occupying Argentine troops, a visit that could rile Buenos Aires.
Britain said it would send one of its most advanced warships, the destroyer HMS Dauntless, to the South Atlantic in the coming months to replace another ship on patrol, but that the move was long planned and “entirely routine”.
Tension between Britain and Argentina over the disputed South Atlantic islands has been rising again as the anniversary of the war approaches and British companies drill for oil in waters surrounding the islands.
“I‘m going to coincide with the conclusion of the Falklands war. I will be going in June for the 30th anniversary,” Jeremy Browne, the British Foreign Office minister responsible for relations with Latin America, told Reuters in an interview.
Browne said he hoped his week-long visit would not annoy Argentina, which has already accused Britain of acting provocatively by announcing that Prince William, second in line to the British throne, will be deployed to the islands this year as an RAF search-and-rescue helicopter pilot.
“I hope they will see it for what it is, which is a recognition of the valor and sacrifice of British soldiers and the Falkland islanders themselves in the liberation of the islands 30 years ago and also a wider commemoration of the sacrifice made more generally, including by Argentineans,” he said.
Argentina was quick to react to the warship’s deployment, but did not specifically comment on Browne’s visit.
Referring to the destroyer’s deployment and Prince William’s tour of duty, the Foreign Ministry said it “rejected the British attempt to militarize (the) conflict” and regretted that an heir to the throne would arrive wearing “the (military) uniform of a conqueror.”
“Governments should avoid the temptation of falling into a discourse ... that aims to distract public attention from belt-tightening economic policies,” a ministry statement added.
Britain refuses to negotiate with Argentina over its claim of sovereignty to the islands, which are called Las Malvinas in Spanish. Prime Minister David Cameron said this month Britain was committed to protecting the islands and said the islanders’ wishes were paramount.
London has controlled the islands, about 300 miles off the southern Argentine coast, since 1833. 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 died in the 10-week conflict.
Browne is the first minister from Britain’s 20-month-old coalition government to announce plans to travel to the islands and will be the first Foreign Office minister to go since 2008.
In December, the South American trading bloc Mercosur - including associate member Chile - agreed that vessels sailing under a Falklands Islands flag would be banned from docking at any of its ports in solidarity with Argentina.
After Argentine President Cristina Fernandez described Britain last year as a “crass colonial power in decline” for refusing to hold talks over the islands, Cameron retorted this month by accusing Argentina of “colonialism”.
Browne, a member of the centre-left Liberal Democrats, the junior coalition partner, said he did not see the dispute as a barrier to Britain’s drive for stronger relations with Latin American nations, “with the exception of Argentina”.
Argentina last week appointed Alicia Castro as its ambassador to London, a post left vacant since 2008 in protest at Britain’s refusal to negotiate over the Falklands.
Browne said there was scope for a “more productive” relationship between Britain and Argentina in areas such as trade, climate change and economic cooperation, including in the G20 group of leading economies to which both countries belong.
“But we are not about to forfeit our belief in the right of self-determination of the Falkland islands’ people ... in order to engender that relationship,” he said.
He said Argentina’s actions could be counter-productive.
“There are a lot of people across Latin America and more widely ... who feel very uncomfortable about a country with a population of 40 million people trying to put into effect what amounts to an economic blockade against remote islands with a population of about 2,500 people,” he said.
The official Falkland Islands website says the inhabitants are predominantly of British descent.
Asked if he expects Argentina to try to create obstacles for companies drilling for oil off the Falklands, Browne said:
“They look determined to try and make it harder and I‘m sure they could make it harder, but the oil exploration is carrying on, so if the ambition of the Argentinians is to bring it to a standstill, then they haven’t succeeded.”
Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas, and Helen Popper in Buenos Aires; editing by Mohammad Zargham