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Falkland Islands hold referendum on disputed status

By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
March 11, 2013 -- Updated 1009 GMT (1809 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Falkland Island residents are voting on whether to remain a British Overseas Territory
  • Argentina, which knows the islands as Las Malvinas, disputes British sovereignty
  • The UK government says the islanders have a right to self-determination
  • Britain and Argentina went to war over the South Atlantic territory in 1982

(CNN) -- People living in the Falkland Islands are voting in a referendum on their political status on Sunday and Monday at a time of heightened tensions between Argentina and Britain over their sovereignty.

The two countries went to war over the territory, known to the Argentinians as Las Malvinas, in 1982 after the then-military government in Argentina landed troops on the islands.

According to the Falklands legislative assembly, the vote is intended to affirm islanders' desire to remain a self-governing territory of the United Kingdom and to reject claims of ownership by Argentina.

The question put to voters is: "Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?"

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The two-day referendum is supported by the British government.

But the Argentinian Embassy in London said in a statement Friday that the referendum had no legitimacy, characterizing it as "a further attempt by the British to manipulate the question of the Malvinas Islands."

Because the area around the Falklands is the subject of a sovereignty dispute, it argues, "the United Kingdom has no right to alter the legal status of these territories, not even under the guise of a hypothetical 'referendum.' "

Argentina's president condemns 'colonial rule'

In January, Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner wrote an open letter, published in the UK press, in which she called on Britain to hand back the islands and accused it of blatant colonialism.

"The Argentines on the Islands were expelled by the Royal Navy and the United Kingdom subsequently began a population implantation process similar to that applied to other territories under colonial rule," she wrote.

"Since then, Britain, the colonial power, has refused to return the territories to the Argentine Republic, thus preventing it from restoring its territorial integrity."

She cited a 1965 U.N. resolution inviting the two countries to negotiate a solution to the sovereignty dispute and has called on the British to abide by the resolution.

The British government rejected Fernandez's call for negotiations, saying the Falkland Island residents have chosen to be British and "have a right to self-determination as enshrined in the U.N. Charter."

The January statement added: "There are three parties to this debate, not just two as Argentina likes to pretend. The islanders can't just be written out of history.

"As such, there can be no negotiations on the sovereignty of the Falklands Islands unless and until such time as the islanders so wish."

The British government accuses Buenos Aires of trying to "coerce" the Falkland Island residents into becoming part of Argentina through intimidation of those involved in fishing and oil exploration, and efforts to isolate the remote islands even further by limiting access by sea.

Long desired for its natural resources

Located in the South Atlantic Ocean, about 480 kilometers (298 miles) east of the tip of South America, the Falklands have long been coveted as a strategic shipping stopover and potential wellspring of natural resources, including lucrative fisheries and a growing oil drilling industry.

The islands, which raise their own taxes but rely on the United Kingdom for defense and foreign policy, are one of 14 British Overseas Territories and have been under British rule since 1833.

More than 2,500 people from more than 60 nations live and work there, according to the islands' government website, as well as forces stationed at the British military's Mount Pleasant Complex. Many Falkland Island residents are of British origin.

War broke out over the territory in 1982, when the then-Argentinian military government landed troops on the islands. Argentina put its death toll from the conflict at around 645. Britain's civil and military losses amounted to 255.

On its official website, the Falklands government rejects as false the Argentinian government claim that a civilian population was expelled by Britain in 1833 and argues for the inhabitants' right to choose their path.

"The people expelled were an illegal Argentine military garrison, who had arrived three months earlier," it says. "The civilian population in the Islands, who had sought permission from Britain to live there, were invited to stay. All but two of them, with their partners, did so.

"We are not an implanted population. Our community has been formed through voluntary immigration and settlement over the course of nearly two hundred years. ... We are no more an implanted population than are the various populations of South America whose ancestors arrived as immigrants from Europe -- we arrived here as part of the same process and pattern of migration."

The islands are economically self-sufficient, the government says, except for the cost of defense needed as a result of "the claim made by an aggressive neighbour."

"The Falkland Islanders are a peaceful, hard-working and resilient people. Our society is thriving and forward-looking. All we ask is to be left in peace to choose our own future, and responsibly develop our home for our children and generations to come," the government says.

UK newspaper hits back over Argentinian claim to Falklands

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