LONDON // Britain is deploying a nuclear submarine and one of its most powerful destroyers to waters off the Falklands amid mounting tensions with Argentina over the future of the islands.
Although William Hague, the UK's foreign secretary, attempted yesterday to defuse the escalating war of words between London and Buenos Aires, the British are determined not to back down as the 30th anniversary of the Argentine invasion approaches.
Argentina insists it has territorial claims pre-dating Britain's 1830 occupation of what it calls the Islas Malvinas, 460 kilometres off its coast. It has increased the pressure by getting the left-leaning Alba bloc of eight South American and Caribbean nations to ban ships sailing under the Falklands flag from their ports at the end of 2012.
Calls from the government of Argentina's president, Cristina Kirchner, for the British to enter into discussions over the future of the South Atlantic archipelago have been firmly rebuffed by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who insists there will only be talks if a majority of Falkland Islanders express a desire to be linked to Argentina.
Even the deployment to the Falklands of Prince William, who flew his first sortie as a Royal Air Force search and rescue helicopter pilot yesterday, has incensed the Argentinians with Hector Timerman, the foreign minister, accusing the prince of wearing the uniform of a "conqueror".
Mr Cameron further inflamed tensions last month when he accused the Argentine government there of "colonialism", leading to flag-burning protests outside the British embassy.
"The key point is we support the Falkland Islanders' right to self-determination," Mr Cameron told parliament. "What the Argentinians have been saying recently, I would argue, is actually far more like colonialism because these people want to remain British and the Argentinians want them to do something else.
"The absolutely vital point is that we are clear that the future of the Falkland Islands is a matter for the people themselves, and as long as they want to remain part of the United Kingdom and be British, they should be able to do so."
Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's left-wing president, entered the debate at the weekend, pledging to fight alongside Argentina in an any future military conflict.
"The issue of the Malvinas Islands is an issue that concerns us, especially with the strong language that has emerged from the British government, accusing Argentina of being colonialist," he said at a meeting in Caracas.
"I'm speaking only for Venezuela, but if it occurs to the British Empire to attack Argentina, Argentina won't be alone this time."
The April 1982 invasion by Argentina, which sparked a 10-week war, ended in British victory and killed 650 Argentine troops and more than 250 British personnel. Britain still maintains about 1,000 troops in the territory, home to about 3,000 residents.
While Britain is not seeking another military conflict over the islands, the government has demonstrated its determination to step up its Falklands defence force by deploying HMS Dauntless, a Type 45 destroyer, to patrol the area.
Although no government spokesman will confirm it officially, sources have let it be known that a Trafalgar-class nuclear submarine armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles and Spearfish torpedoes is also on its way to the South Atlantic.
In an interview with Sky News yesterday, Mr Hague described both the destroyers and Prince William's deployment to the Falklands as "entirely routine". He also made it plain that events to mark the 30th anniversary of the Argentinian invasion of the islands and their subsequent defeat by a British task force, would go ahead as planned.
Describing the anniversary events both in Britain and Port Stanley, the Falklands capital, as "not so much celebrations as commemorations", Mr Hague maintained it was doing all it could to stop Argentina "raising the diplomatic temperature" over the islands.
"I think Argentina will also be holding commemorations of those who died in the conflict," he said. "Since both countries will be doing that, I don't think there is anything provocative about that.
"Nor is there anything provocative about entirely routine military movements. They are entirely routine — of course our ships regularly visit the South Atlantic. We don't normally make any comment on the deployment of our nuclear submarines.
"We will resist the diplomatic efforts of Argentina to raise the temperature on this and when I was in the Caribbean a couple of weeks ago, the Caribbean nations agreed to support a self-determination of the Falkland islanders, which is what we believe in."
The issue, though, is more than about self-determination for the Falklands' inhabitants. The islands are now achieving international significance with the discovery of promising oil and gas deposits offshore.