Falklands to hold referendum on political status

The Falkland Islands will hold a referendum on its political status in 2013 in a bid to end the bitter territorial dispute between Britain and Argentina, the archipelago's government said.

Gavin Short, chairman of the Falklands' legislative assembly, said the residents of the British overseas territory had no wish to be ruled by Buenos Aires, which views the islands as occupied Argentine territory.

"We have decided, with the full support of the British government, to hold a referendum on the Falkland Islands to eliminate any possible doubt about our wishes," said Short, adding the vote would be held in the first half of 2013.

"I have no doubt that the people of the Falklands wish for the islands to remain a self-governing Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom," he said.

"We certainly have no desire to be ruled by the government in Buenos Aires, a fact that is immediately obvious to anyone who has visited the Islands and heard our views."

The announcement comes as both Britain and Argentina commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 74-day war they fought over the islands in the South Atlantic, costing the lives of 649 Argentine and 255 British troops.

British forces reclaimed control of the Falklands in June 1982 following an Argentine invasion after then prime minister Margaret Thatcher sent a naval task force.

On Tuesday Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed the announcement of the referendum, saying it should be "up to the Falkland Islanders themselves to choose whether they want to be British".

"Thirty years ago they made clear that they wanted to stay British. That's why British forces bravely liberated the island from Argentine invaders," he said.

"Now the Argentine government wants to put that choice in doubt again, by shouting down the islanders' ability to speak for themselves and punishing them for exercising their own free choice."

He added: "Britain will respect and defend their choice."

Argentina meanwhile offered no immediate reaction.

The United States, which has encountered criticism in some corners of both Britain and Argentina for refusing to take a stand on the bitter row, declined to say whether it would respect the results of the referendum.

"Our position remains one of neutrality," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters when asked about the referendum plans.

"We recognize de facto UK administration of the islands but we don't take any position regarding sovereignty claims. So our position has not changed," she said.

Britain has held the Falklands since 1833, but Argentina claims the windswept archipelago, which is home to fewer than 3,000 people and known as Las Malvinas in Spanish, as its own.

Tensions between Britain and Argentina have risen in the run-up to the 30th anniversary of the war.

Analysts believe oil supplies worth tens of billions of dollars may lie off the Falklands, and London enraged Buenos Aires by authorising prospecting in 2010.

Last week, Argentina declared British oil exploration off the Falklands "illegal" and immediately set about suing five companies for pursuing activities around the islands.

A junior British foreign minister, Jeremy Browne, is currently visiting the Falklands.

Argentina's President Cristina Kirchner will be at the UN headquarters in New York Thursday to push Buenos Aires' claim to the islands at the annual UN decolonization committee hearings.

The visit is unusual as the committee is normally the preserve of lower-level diplomats, but Argentina has been building up its diplomatic campaign in recent months.

That is precisely because a diplomatic campaign -- not a vote by locals -- is where Kirchner has a shot at making progress on Argentina's agenda.

The issue of sovereignty over the Falklands is an extremely emotional one in Argentina and a patriotic rallying point. Schoolchildren are taught from early on that the islands are part of Argentina, awaiting political change.

Recently, retired Argentine footballers have donned T-shirts saying, "If we train in the Malvinas, I am coming back to play."

The UN committee routinely urges Britain to decolonize. Britain is not a member of the committee and refuses to make submissions to its hearings on the islands.

But for several years legislators from the Atlantic territory have taken on Argentine ministers and other top officials at the debates.

The UN committee normally calls for a solution to the dispute to be negotiated by the parties in dispute -- not for a locally organized vote.

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