Falkland Islands vote in referendum with eye on world

LONDON (AFP) - Residents of the Falkland Islands on Sunday voted in a referendum intended to show the world that they want to stay British amid increasingly bellicose claims by Argentina.

Buenos Aires has dismissed the vote as meaningless, but witnesses reported up to 90 people waiting in the rain to vote at the single polling station in the capital Stanley an hour after it opened.

"It's an extraordinary turnout," Barry Elsby, a member of the Falklands legislative assembly, told AFP by telephone as he queued up outside the town hall behind two islanders dressed head-to-toe in the British flag.

In a move instigated by residents themselves, 1,672 eligible voters are being asked whether they want the Falklands to remain an internally self-governing British overseas territory.

The result, due overnight on Monday, is not in doubt but the scale of the 'yes' vote will be closely watched as a sign of the Falklanders' strength of feeling.

"No matter what Argentina says, the rest of the world will not ignore it," said Elsby, a 57-year-old Welsh doctor who moved to the Falklands on a two-year contract in 1990 and never left.

"I'm very proud of what we're doing today." Argentina has said the referendum has no legal standing and will not affect its claim to the South Atlantic archipelago, which it tried unsuccessfully to take over in a short but bloody war in 1982.

Britain has held the barren islands since 1833 but Buenos Aires claims what it calls "Las Malvinas" are occupied Argentinian territory.

Diplomatic tensions have risen in recent years, fuelled by the discovery of oil near the Falklands, with Argentine President Cristina Kirchner ramping up her demands for the islands' return.

The ambassador to Britain, Alicia Castro, this weekend branded the referendum "utterly meaningless" from the perspective of international law.

"Its predictable outcome neither ends the dispute nor affects Argentina's unquestionable rights," she said.

However predictable the result, the "yes" campaign has been carried out with enthusiasm.

Homes and shops are festooned with posters and flags, both the British Union Jack and the deep blue Falklands standard which includes the Union Jack and a crest with a sheep in the middle.

At least 30 Land Rovers lined up to spell "YES" on a patch of land opposite Stanley on Saturday - a clear message for the visiting journalists.

Marlene Short, who runs a diner in Stanley with her husband Richard, was planning to cast her 'yes' vote early on Sunday morning but the queue was so long she decided to come back later.

"The town is absolutely buzzing," said the 43-year-old, who moved to the Falklands in 1989.

"Whether Argentina takes any notice of it, who knows. I guess they won't. But we're definitely going to show that we're British." Falklanders hope the referendum result will arm them with an unambiguous message to take to other capitals when pressing their case for acceptance on the international stage.

The United States, for example, has studiously avoided taking sides on the issue despite its close ties with Britain.

International observers, many of them from Latin America, are monitoring the polls, which are open between 1300 and 2100 GMT on Sunday and Monday.

The referendum is a logistical challenge, taking place across an inhospitable territory of 12,000 sq km.

Four-fifths of the 2,563 residents live in Stanley, with its pubs and red telephone boxes, but several hundred are scattered in sheep farms and settlements across the rugged area beyond, known collectively as "Camp".

There are four static polling stations, one in Stanley and three in other settlements, while several mobile polling booths were transported around the islands by plane and by Land Rover.

Fiona Didlick and her husband Graham are among only four people living in the settlement of Darwin on East Falkland, but that has not dampened their enthusiasm for the vote.

"We feel as if history is being made today," she told AFP after voting in nearby Goose Green.

"I hope that Argentina will recognise that they need to drop their claim over the Falkland Islands." She added that the vote was vital in letting the world know that "these are our Islands and our future is our choice." Argentina, 400km away, has branded the referendum "illegal" because it claims the islanders are "implanted" and thus do not have the right to self-determination.

The Argentinian foreign ministry said on Friday that the vote was "a British attempt to manipulate" the status of the archipelago.

London, an even further 13,000km away, says it will not discuss sovereignty issues with Buenos Aires unless the islanders expressly wish it.

On April 2, 1982, Argentina's then-ruling junta invaded the Falklands, sparking a 74-day war with Britain which cost the lives of 649 Argentine and 255 British troops.

If the invasion hardened the minds of the staunchly pro-British islanders then, Kirchner's tub-thumping has done likewise for a whole new generation.

"The only people who can really decide what is in their best interests are the Falkland Islanders," Dick Sawle, another of the islands' eight elected legislative assembly members, told AFP.

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