NEW: Argentina's president calls the Falkland Islands referendum a "parody"
Britain will always defend the people of the Falklands, Cameron said
Overwhelming percentage of voters said they want the Falklands to remain a territory
Argentina, which knows the islands as Las Malvinas, disputes British sovereignty
An overwhelming vote by residents of the Falkland Islands to remain under British rule didn’t quell claims from Argentina on Tuesday.
President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner called this week’s two-day referendum a “parody” and maintained that the territory, which Argentina calls Las Malvinas, rightfully belongs to her country.
“It is as if a consortium of occupiers had voted on whether to continue illegally occupying a building,” she said at an event in Buenos Aires. “The results were fixed.”
Asked whether they wanted to remain a British Overseas Territory, more than 99% of voters who cast ballots said yes, according to a Falkland Islands government spokesman. Just three people voted no, spokesman Darren Christie said.
Pictures at the polls showed some residents of the islands draped in Union flags as they cast their votes. Cars displayed banners that read, “We’re British and proud.” A parade honoring British heritage marked the start of voting Sunday.
The vote drew praise from British Prime Minister David Cameron.
“It’s the clearest possible result there could be,” he said, “and the fact is that the Falkland Islands may be thousands of miles away, but they are British through and through, and that is how they want to stay.”
Argentina should respect the will of the islanders, he said, adding that the United Kingdom “will always be there to defend them.”
Before the results were announced, one lawmaker from the islands criticized Argentina for arguing that the vote was illegitimate.
“I believe we are like other people in the world, and we are entitled to determine our own future. … I think it’s dreadful that someone like Argentina should be trying to deny us that,” Sharon Halford, a member of the Falkland Islands Legislative Assembly, told CNN. “They obviously don’t care what their own people think, but worldwide, everybody has the right to determine their own future, and why should we not be the same?”
Argentina’s top diplomat in the United Kingdom, meanwhile, maintained her government’s position that the referendum did nothing to settle the issue.
“The British inhabitants of the Malvinas Islands unquestionably enjoy civil and political rights,” Argentinian Ambassador Alicia Castro said in a statement Tuesday. “But they do not have the right to decide the sovereignty dispute between Argentina and the United Kingdom.”
The two countries went to war over the territory in 1982 after the then-military government in Argentina landed troops on the islands. Argentina put its death toll from the conflict at around 645. Britain says its civil and military losses amounted to 255.
For more than a year, renewed rhetoric between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the islands has escalated to a fever pitch, with both sides accusing each other of colonialism.
Prince William’s military deployment to the islands last year further fueled tensions, drawing sharp criticism from Argentinian officials.
In January, Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner wrote an open letter, published in the British press, calling on Britain to hand back the islands and accusing it of blatant colonialism.
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 accuses Buenos Aires of trying to coerce 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.
British officials have rejected Fernandez’s call for negotiations, saying the people of the Falkland Islands have chosen to be British and “have a right to self-determination as enshrined in the U.N. Charter.”
“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,” read a statement from the British Foreign Office.
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 government website, as well as forces stationed at the British military’s Mount Pleasant Complex. Many Falkland Island residents are of British origin.
About 1,600 voters from the Falkland Islands were eligible to vote in the referendum, officials said.
Before results were announced, Halford said she didn’t think the vote would put an end to Argentina’s renewed bid for control of the islands.
“They’ve been saying for ages that they have no intention of recognizing it, whatever the outcome, which I find interesting because they’ve been going to horrendous lengths around the world to try and discredit it,” Halford said.
For Argentina, she said, the islands are a “political football” used to distract Argentinians from problems at home.
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.
“We are not an implanted population,” the government says. “Our community has been formed through voluntary immigration and settlement over the course of nearly 200 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.”
CNN’s Michael Holmes and Alden Mahler Levine contributed to this report.