Argentine president seeks new flights to Falklands

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By DEBORA REY, Associated Press

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentine President Cristina Fernandez made a surprise conciliatory gesture Thursday by seeking negotiations with the United Kingdom to establish several weekly flights from Buenos Aires to the Falkland Islands.

A Falklands government official said islanders were deeply skeptical. Legislative chairman Roger Edwards said direct flights from Argentina's capital are "about as likely as the Falklands Air Service landing flights on the moon."

There are currently no flights directly from Argentina to the British-controlled islands, which the South American country claims as the Islas Malvinas. The only commercial air link is a weekly round-trip by Chilean-owned LAN airlines, which crosses Argentine airspace to the islands about 300 miles (482 kilometers) off the Argentine coast. LAN's return flight stops once a month in the far southern Argentine city of Rio Gallegos on its way home.

Fernandez had threatened in a United Nations speech last year that she might close Argentine airspace to the LAN flight, just as the government did previously with charter flights that had frequently relieved cruise ship crews and brought in goods from Chile.

But on Thursday, she appeared to reverse herself, telling Congress that flights by state-owned Aerolineas Argentinas would show the world her country's aims are peaceful. The announcement came amid growing tensions as the two countries prepare to mark the 30th anniversary of their brief war over the islands following an Argentine invasion.

The president said the islands "have become a regional, American and global cause ... that is necessary to address with much seriousness."

She also condemned what she said was the "stubborn, incomprehensible refusal" of Britain to negotiate the sovereignty of the Falklands.

The British Foreign Office responded in a statement: "Any discussions on flights to the Falkland Islands are matters for the Falkland Islands Government to consider."

"If Argentina is keen to promote air links between the continent and the Islands it should reconsider its ban on charter flights through its airspace," it said. "President Kirchner's current policy of seeking to isolate and dictate to the Falkland Islanders — from the harassment of fishing vessels to the closure of shipping ports — is indefensible and will not succeed."

Britain has refused to negotiate over the islands, where residents overwhelmingly support retaining links with the British government, which has controlled the territory since 1833.

Fernandez has used increasingly strong language in condemning British control of the islands, and Argentina recently stopped two British-flagged cruise ships from docking in the far southern Argentine city of Ushuaia.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, for his part, has called Argentina's position colonialist, and dispatched a Royal Navy destroyer to the region.

The dispute also is affecting trade with Britain, as Argentine port workers threaten to boycott British cargo and Fernandez's ministers urge companies to find substitutes for British imports.

Edwards said islanders spent much of Thursday trying to figure out what Fernandez meant by the brief reference in a long speech to Congress.

"She may have instructed her foreign minister to toddle off and do something, but we know not what," Edwards said.

"I think the Falkland Islands people would be very much against direct flights from Buenos Aires," he added. "I would think that if they want to be nice to us again, they would first restore the right to fly charter flights over Argentine airspace."

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Associated Press writer Cassandra Vinograd in London and Michael Warren in Santiago, Chile, contributed to this report.

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