Falkland Islanders vote overwhelmingly to stay British

British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday urged Argentina to respect the wishes of the Falkland Islanders after they voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to remain a British territory.

Some 92 percent of the 1,672 eligible voters turned out to deliver a 99.8 percent "yes" vote in favour of staying an internally self-governing British territory, according to official results.

Only three votes out of 1,517 valid ballots were cast against the islands remaining British.

Buenos Aires had earlier dismissed the vote as meaningless, saying it would not affect its claims on the South Atlantic archipelago which sparked a brief but bloody war with Britain in 1982.

The islanders organised the vote against a backdrop of increasingly vocal demands for sovereignty by President Cristina Kirchner.

The announcement of the result overnight Monday was met with jubilation in the Falklands capital Stanley, and Cameron said he was personally "delighted" by the outcome.

He urged Argentina to "take careful note".

"The Falkland Islanders couldn't have spoken more clearly. They want to remain British and that view should be respected by everybody, including by Argentina," he said in a statement.

Falklanders hope the referendum result will arm them with an unambiguous message to take to other capitals when pressing their case for acceptance on the international stage.

The United States, for example, has studiously avoided taking sides on the issue despite its close ties with Britain.

The resounding "yes" result, delivered at around 10:30 pm Monday (0130 GMT Tuesday) sparked unprecedented celebrations.

"There's so much noise here, it's huge," Legislative Assembly member Barry Elsby told AFP. "There are hundreds of people outside the cathedral, celebrating, singing and waving flags."

Elsby said it "sends a message around the world", adding that Argentina would be "very frightened" because "this process was democratic. They can’t dismiss it".

International observers -- from Canada, Chile, Mexico, New Zealand, Paraguay, the United States and Uruguay -- monitored the referendum on Sunday and Monday and declared it "free and fair".

But Argentina maintained its position that the vote was illegal.

"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 Argentinian media.

Argentina says the United Nations had issued 40 resolutions calling on Buenos Aires and London to negotiate over the sovereignty of the Falklands.

But Britain says it will not discuss sovereignty issues with Buenos Aires unless the islanders expressly wish it.

-- 'We remain British' --

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

It has stepped up its claims in recent years, 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.

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

But the referendum sparked huge enthusiasm among the Falkland Islands' 2,563 permanent residents, four-fifths of whom live in Stanley, with its typically British pubs and red telephone boxes.

Homes and shops were 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".

"Argentina will always have their views," Marlene Short, who runs a diner in Stanley with her husband Richard, told AFP.

But she said the referendum "is to try and convince anyone that is doubtful as to whether we remain British that today we desperately want to".

International reaction to the referendum has been largely silent with the exception of Sweden, which pledged to heed the result.

The vote itself 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.