- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 21, 2015

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) - The Argentine government on Tuesday sued several energy companies that are drilling for oil near the Falkland Islands, the latest proxy fight in a longstanding dispute over the far-flung archipelago, though analysts say it will have little practical effect.

Daniel Filmus, the Argentine official responsible for the islands, told The Associated Press that the suit was filed in the Tierra del Fuego province in southern Argentina.

The government is suing British companies Rockhopper Exploration, Premier Oil and Falkland Oil and Gas, along with American company Noble Energy and Edison International SpA from Italy. It’s also suing several others that have collaborated and provided logistical support to the larger companies.

“Argentina will defend its natural resources,” said Filmus, arguing that the companies are performing illegal acts by drilling near the islands, which the Argentine government claims.

Rockhopper declined comment, and a statement from Premier Oil said “our concession contracts are with the Falkland Islands Government.” The other companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Argentina lost a brief war with Britain over the South Atlantic territory in 1982, but still claims the islands, which it calls the Malvinas.

When Argentine officials announced their plans last week in London, UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond sharply criticized the move.

“It’s an outrageous piece of bullying and threatening against the Falkland Islanders’ perfect right to develop their economic resources, and Argentina need to stop this kind of behavior and start acting like a responsible member of the international community,” Hammond said in an interview with Sky News.

The suits say that exploration for hydrocarbons was being done without permission of the Secretary of Energy. If found guilty, the heads of the companies and other employees could be sentenced to five to 10 years in prison.

Even if the suits are successful, it’s unlikely that any decision would go beyond the borders of the South American country.

Juan Javier Negri, a lawyer specializing in commercial international law, said the government would have “serious difficulties” carrying out any sentence because it was unlikely international bodies would implement it.

In that sense, the suits represent “more of a political gesture in the midst of escalating political rhetoric than an action with concrete effects,” said political analyst Rosendo Fraga

The Falklands dispute always strikes a nerve in Argentina, but Britain has repeatedly said the question of sovereignty has been decided. In a 2013 referendum, the vast majority of Falkland residents voted to remain a British territory. The islands have a population of about 2,563 people, according to a 2012 census.

Several U.N. resolutions have urged the two nations to negotiate. Argentina claims Britain stole the territory by placing a naval garrison there in 1833.

The latest dustup began last month, when Britain announced plans to build up its military capacities protecting the islands over the next decade. Since then, the Argentine government has repeatedly criticized Britain.

During an April 3 speech, while claiming Argentina’s right to the islands, President Cristina Fernandez said Great Britain should not spend “even one more British pound” protecting the islands and instead should use the money for its poor.


Peter Prengaman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/peterprengaman

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