Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina’s president, used the 30th anniversary of her country’s invasion of the Falkland Islands to rubbish Britain’s claims to the south Atlantic territory, saying: “It is absurd to pretend dominion more than 14,000km across the sea.”
“It is an injustice in the 21st century that there are still colonial enclaves,” Ms Fernández said in a sober speech in Ushuaia, the capital of the province of Tierra del Fuego to which Argentina says the islands it calls the Malvinas rightfully belong.
Before a crowd including medal-wearing former conscripts and weeping women, she also hit back at comments earlier by David Cameron, the British prime minister, saying he appeared to have overlooked that the Falklands invasion 30 years ago – which he branded “an act of aggression that sought to rob [the islanders] of their freedom” – was perpetrated by a dictatorship that had confiscated the liberty of all Argentines. “We have been victims,” she said.
She also demanded an end to environmental degradation and what Argentina sees as the ransacking of potential oil riches in waters around the islands, where British companies are operating with licences Argentina says are illegal.
In the Argentine capital, a protest at the British embassy turned violent as demonstrators hurled petrol bombs and rocks at police who responded with tear gas.
The British defence secretary, meanwhile, asserted that the UK would be able to defend the Falkland Islands robustly against a fresh attack by Argentina after the naval commander who led the taskforce that recaptured the islands in 1982 warned that the UK lacked the military power to do so today.
Philip Hammond said the British government would not “repeat the mistake of 1982 and allow the Falklands to be taken from us.
“We will defend them robustly, we have the assets, the people, the equipment in place to do so,” the British defence secretary said.
This came after Admiral Sir John Woodward told The Times newspaper that the UK would not be able to repeat that mission today as it lacked the aircraft carriers to do so.
But Mr Hammond insisted: “We have the assets in position on the Falklands which we didn’t back in the early 1980s that will enable us to see off any acts of aggression.”
Amid a recent escalation of tensions between the UK and Argentina, Mr Cameron said there would be no change in his government’s policy on the disputed islands.
“Britain remains staunchly committed to upholding the right of the Falkland Islanders, and of the Falkland Islanders alone, to determine their own future,” he said. “That was the fundamental principle that was at stake 30 years ago: and that is the principle which we solemnly reaffirm today.”
Three decades after Argentinian troops seized the islands’ capital Port Stanley on April 2, 1982, Mr Cameron paid tribute to the taskforce sent by Margaret Thatcher to take them back.
In a gesture of reconciliation, however, he said it should be a day to remember both sides’ losses in the conflict: the 649 Argentinians who died as well as the 255 British military personnel.
Mr Cameron said in a written statement he was adamant Britain would not compromise on the central issue of the islanders’ right to self-determination.
“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.
“Today is a day for commemoration and reflection: a day to remember all those who lost their lives in the conflict – the members of our armed forces, as well as the Argentinian personnel who died.”
The government of Ms Fernández has been loudly reasserting its claim to the islands in the run-up to the anniversary.
Ms Fernández has threatened to cancel permission for the only commercial flight to the islands to fly over her country, and protests have taken place outside the UK embassy in Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital.
The Argentine embassy in London has written to banks, warning them against even peripheral involvement in oil exploration around the disputed archipelago. Even issuing research about the oil industry’s prospects around the Falklands could lead to legal threats, the letter said.
William Hague, foreign secretary, described Argentina’s array of aggressive actions as “deeply regrettable” and said the government’s statements “have impressed few people, including in South America”.
“We should remind the world that in the years since their liberation the Falkland islanders have repeated – without qualification or equivocation – their wish to keep their constitutional status, their national identity, and to live peacefully with their neighbours in Latin America,” he said. “As long as the people of the Falklands continue to express that view, the UK will defend and support their right to do so.”