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Falklands wraps up referendum as Argentina protests


Counting began in the Falkland Islands on Monday after residents cast their ballots on the final day of a two-day referendum designed to make clear their staunch desire to remain British, as Argentina derided the vote as illegal.

In a move instigated by residents themselves, the 1,672 eligible voters were deciding whether they want the Falkland Islands to remain an internally self-governing British overseas territory.

An overwhelming "yes" result, due within hours after polls closed at 6:00 pm (2100 GMT) on the remote South Atlantic archipelago, is not in doubt, with islanders planning a party afterwards.

Argentina, which invaded the islands in 1982 before its troops were ousted by a British task force after a short but bloody war, maintained its dismissive line on the vote.

"It's a manoeuvre with no legal value, which has neither been convened nor supervised by the United Nations," said Alicia Castro, Argentina's ambassador to London.

"We respect their way of life, their identity. We respect that they want to continue being British, but the territory they inhabit is not British," she told Buenos Aires radio station La Red.

Buenos Aires has stepped up its sovereignty claims against the backdrop of the discovery of potentially valuable oil reserves in the territorial waters of the islands it calls "Las Malvinas", some 400 kilometres (250 miles) away from the Argentine coast.

Falklanders hope the result will arm them with a definitive statement on their wishes to counter Argentine President Cristina Kirchner's relentless and often emotional diplomatic offensive.

Despite the negative noises coming from Argentina, Falkland Islanders were in high spirits, with a party planned for 9:00 pm (0000 GMT Tuesday) in the capital Stanley to cheer in the result with food, drinks, flags, music, and a rare mass photo.

Four-fifths of the archipelago's 2,563 permanent residents live in the town, with its typically British pubs and red telephone boxes.

And for the referendum, homes and shops are festooned with posters and flags, both Britain's Union Jack and the deep blue Falklands standard, which features both the Union Jack and the islands' crest -- a sheep, a wooden ship and the motto "Desire the Right".

"What we're trying to do is send a message," Barry Elsby, a member of the Falklands legislative assembly, told AFP by telephone.

"Argentina are totally ignoring us. But the rest of the world will see it for what it is -- the democratic view of the people."

-- 'We remain British' --

Britain has held the Falklands since 1833 but Buenos Aires maintains that the barren islands are occupied Argentinian territory.

Buenos Aires claims the islanders are an "implanted" colonial population and thus do not have the right to self-determination.

Marlene Short, who runs a diner in Stanley with her husband Richard, moved to the Falklands in 1989.

"Argentina will always have their views, but today is to try and convince anyone that is doubtful as to whether we remain British that today we desperately want to," the 43-year-old told AFP.

Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt pledged to heed the result.

"Today people on (the) Falkland Islands will express their view on whether they want the islands to remain part of the UK or not. We will listen," he tweeted.

International observers -- from Canada, Chile, Mexico, New Zealand, Paraguay, the United States and Uruguay -- monitored the polling stations, which opened at 10:00 am (1300 GMT).

The referendum was a logistical challenge, taking place across 12,000 square kilometres (4,700 square miles) of inhospitable territory.

Several hundred islanders are scattered in isolated sheep farms and tiny settlements across the bleakly picturesque landscape outside Stanley, known as "Camp".

There were four static polling stations: one in Stanley and one at Goose Green on East Falkland, with two in West Falkland at Port Howard and Fox Bay.

To reach the most remote voters, mobile polling booths were transported around the islands by a five-seater plane and five four-wheel-drive vehicles rumbling along the rough tracks with an observer in the passenger seat and a ballot box in the back.

Fiona Didlick and her husband Graham are among four people living in the settlement of Darwin. They voted in neighbouring Goose Green.

She told AFP: "I hope that Argentina will recognise that they need to drop their claim over the Falkland Islands as their wish to subject us to alien subjugation and domination constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, contravenes the UN charter and impedes the promotion of peace and cooperation in the region."

London, some 13,000 kilometres (8,000 miles) away, says it will not discuss sovereignty issues with Buenos Aires against the islanders' wishes.