Thursday, September 27, 2007

BUENOS AIRES — Britain is considering laying claim to vast new tracts of potentially oil- and gas-rich territories off the Falkland Islands, a move that has spurred an angry reaction from Argentina.

Britain and Argentina both claim sovereignty over the small archipelago, off Argentina’s Atlantic coast. More than 900 soldiers and sailors were killed in a short war over the territory in 1982, sparked when Argentine forces occupied the main islands.

In a move likely to add new heat to the long-running dispute, British officials are preparing to submit a bid to the United Nations to show that thousands of extra square miles of the surrounding ocean floor are geographically part of the islands.

The claim follows a new approach in international law that holds that a nation’s legitimately held territory can extend up to 350 miles from its coast if it can verify that it is part of the shoreline’s underlying continental shelf. Russia and other countries are using the same law to lay claim to the seabed under the North Pole.

In the case of the Falklands, a favorable ruling could extend the zone of British seabed exploration rights well beyond its existing 200-mile boundary, which would conflict with Argentine claims.

On Saturday, after details of the legal submission were revealed by British government lawyers, Argentina said it would fight the application vigorously.

“We are completely opposed to this proposition of the U.K. government to extend its territories,” said Ruperto Godoy, the Argentine state deputy who is president of a parliamentary group set up to advance his government’s claim to the islands. “We want to restart dialogue about the Falklands, but the British are ignoring this position.”

Britain’s application is being filed with the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which has asked that all such claims be submitted by May 2009. London is also putting in bids for territories around Ascension Island in the mid-Atlantic, and Rockall, a tiny pinnacle more than 200 miles west of the Hebrides.

The Foreign Office insisted over the weekend that there was no certainty that the bid would go ahead.

“We are considering the possibility of making a submission … but no firm decision has been taken yet,” said a spokesman. However, Mike Summers, spokesman for the Falkland Islands Legislative Council, said the studies had been under way for several years.

“There are a great number of countries around the world who are doing and have been preparing the geological information here for some time, maybe three or four years,” he said.

“The Argentines will then make a claim in parallel, although I am not sure that they necessarily have the relevant geological information at the moment.”

He said the U.N. commission would not issue a final binding decision on the matter as long as the ownership of the Falklands was in dispute.

Nonetheless, Argentina, whose demands for talks on sovereignty have been turned down over the years, views the filing of the application as a provocative act.

Mr. Godoy said he thought it was “no coincidence” that details of the claim had become public in Britain just days ahead of a U.N. speech by Argentine President Nestor Kirchner.

“This shows a lack of understanding of the Argentine position, and if the British do not change their approach, we shall have to interpret it as aggression,” he said.

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