USHUAIA, Argentina — Argentina and Britain on Monday marked 30 years since they went to war over the Falklands, with Argentine President Cristina Kirchner calling British rule over the disputed islands “absurd.”
“It is absurd to claim control [of the Falklands] from 14,000 kilometers [8,700 miles] away when the territory is on our continental shelf,” Kirchner said in a 20-minute speech to veterans of the bloody 74-day conflict.
Kirchner traveled to Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city, to pay homage to the 649 Argentine victims of the conflict, which began with a surprise Argentine invasion of the remote islands on April 2, 1982.
The war ended in a humiliating defeat for Argentina when British prime minister Margaret Thatcher sent in a naval task force to reclaim the archipelago that Britain has ruled since 1833.
After the long voyage, the British force launched an assault from the sea, fighting hilltop by hilltop to wrest back control of the windswept islands. A total of 255 British service members died in the war.
In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron stressed his country remains “staunchly committed to upholding the right of the Falkland Islanders, and of the Falkland Islanders alone, to determine their own future.”
“Thirty years ago today the people of the Falkland Islands suffered an act of aggression that sought to rob them of their freedom and their way of life,” he said.
Tensions over the islands flared over the past two years after Britain gave companies permission to search for offshore oil deposits in the Falklands waters. Analysts say untapped oil reserves discovered in 1998 could be worth tens of billions of dollars.
Kirchner said Buenos Aires would respect the interests of 3,000 Falklanders who remain loyal to Britain.
“We are not asking for anything more than a dialogue between the two countries to discuss the issue of sovereignty, respecting the interests of the islanders as stated in UN resolutions,” she told the crowd.
“It is an injustice that in the 21st century, a total of 16 colonial enclaves still exist, including 10 ruled by Britain,” the Argentine president said.
Earlier, some 5,000 people attended a remembrance vigil in honor of the war dead in Ushuaia.
Buenos Aires has also accused London of militarizing the seas around the islands, and has taken its complaints to the United Nations.
The British defense ministry said on Monday that HMS Dauntless, a destroyer, will head to the South Atlantic on Wednesday for a six-month patrol.
At the United Nations, the head of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) was to meet with UN chief Ban Ki-moon Monday to deliver a letter of support for Argentina in its row with Britain.
The UN decolonization branch has called on London to open a dialogue on the islands. Britain has refused.
“The islands are British, we have full rights on the islands,” Falklands governor Nigel Haywood told AFP last week. “The islanders themselves want to be British.”
At Britain’s National Memorial Arboretum in central England, a candle was lit in memory of the veterans who lost their lives and will burn for 74 days to represent the duration of the conflict.
Commander Peter Mosse, who captained a British naval frigate during the war, said after the service that the conflict was the product of the domestic situation in Argentina, which in 1982 was under the rule of a military junta.
“It was a very sad and unnecessary conflict because we were about to come to an arrangement with the Argentinians about the future of the Falklands by talking, by working things out, as things should be done,” he told AFP.
In a deliberately low-key service at the arboretum, which lasted no more than 10 minutes, the congregation of fewer than 100 prayed for reconciliation between Britain and Argentina.
A memorial to the British servicemen who lost their lives is nearing completion in the arboretum grounds. It will be dedicated on May 20, in the presence of around 600 veterans.
Reclaiming the islands became the defining moment of Thatcher’s premiership and helped the “Iron Lady” to win re-election in 1983, and again in 1987.
In Buenos Aires, leftist protesters threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at police in a protest outside the British embassy, and police responded with tear gas and blasts from a water cannon.
Several protesters were lightly injured in the clashes, police told local media.
In London, the British Foreign Office condemnded “the violent actions of a minority” in the protests.
“We expect the Argentine Government to continue to fulfill its obligations under the [Vienna] convention and continue fully to enforce the law against any demonstrators committing criminal acts,” the Foreign Office said.