The Falkland Islands are to hold a referendum on their “political status” - hoping to bring an end to the continuing dispute with Argentina over the islands’ sovereignty, their government said today.
The announcement comes as Falklanders prepare to mark the 30th anniversary of the liberation of the islands.
Three decades after Margaret Thatcher sent 27,000 troops and more than 100 ships to repel the Argentinian invaders, Buenos Aires continues to set its sights on claiming the territory it calls Las Malvinas.
But the Falkland Islands government said it hopes a referendum will send a firm message to Argentinian president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner that islanders want to remain British.
Reacting to the announcement, UK Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne said this is a “truly significant moment”.
The Falkland Islands, a rocky archipelago in the South Atlantic, are 7,780 miles from the UK and 1,140 miles from Buenos Aires.
They have been under British control since 1833 – apart from the brief but bitter 74 days of occupation in 1982.
Gavin Short, chairman of the Legislative Assembly, said: “We are holding this referendum not because we have any doubts about who we are and what future we want, but to show the world just how certain we are about it.
“I have no doubt that the people of the Falklands wish for the islands to remain a self-governing overseas territory of the United Kingdom.
“We certainly have no desire to be ruled by the government in Buenos Aires, a fact that is immediately obvious to anyone who has visited the islands and heard our views.
“But we are aware that not everybody is able to come to these beautiful islands and to see this reality for themselves.
“And the Argentine government deploys misleading rhetoric that wrongly implies that we have no strong views or even that we are being held hostage by the UK military. This is simply absurd.”
The Falkland Islands has a population of around 3,000 people, with just over half on the electoral roll and expected to take part in the vote.
The referendum will be organised by the Falkland Islands government and will take place in the first half of next year.
Mr Short said: “We have thought carefully about how to convey a strong message to the outside world that expresses the views of the Falklands people in a clear, democratic and incontestable way.
“So we have decided, with the full support of the British Government, to hold a referendum on the Falkland Islands to eliminate any possible doubt about our wishes.”
The Falklands government said it intends to invite international observers to verify the outcome of the referendum.
It added that exact timings, the specific wording of the question and other details will be announced in the coming weeks.
Argentina’s Ms de Kirchner has been heating up the debate over the islands as key milestones in the 1982 conflict have passed.
Last week she announced that Buenos Aires would be launching criminal proceedings against UK oil firms that are operating off the Falkland’s coastline, saying they were operating illegally.
Britain has accused the country of implementing a number of economic blockades on the small, isolated islands and of acting in a “domineering way”.
But British officials are adamant that there will be no change in the UK’s sovereignty of the islands unless and until the Falklanders themselves wish it.
Mr Browne, who arrived in the Falkland Islands yesterday, welcomed the announcement of a referendum.
“Only the Falkland Islands people can determine how they wish to be governed, so I very much support this initiative by the Falkland Islands government,” he said.
“Indeed, I believe this referendum is a truly significant moment.
“It will give the Falkland Islands people the opportunity to send a clear message – not just to Argentina, but to the whole of the international community - that the islanders, and they alone, are masters of their fate.”
He added that the British Government would respect whatever the outcome of the referendum might be.
“I call on all governments who prize democracy and human rights to do likewise,” Mr Browne added.
“Whilst it is for the islanders to choose, let me be clear: the British Government greatly values the links between the UK and the Falkland Islands.
“We believe these should continue and deepen, long into the future.
“And if this proves to be the will of the Falkland Islands people, then we in the UK will not just respect it, but will continue actively to defend this act of self-determination from those who seek to challenge it.”
The Government called for the referendum just two days before Ms de Kirchner is due to attend a UN committee in New York on de-colonisation.
During the meeting she is expected to put the Argentinian position on the Falkland Islands.
She will also be addressed by a group of young Falkland Islanders, most of whom were not born when the Falklands War took place in 1982.
Speaking from London yesterday, they said they often get drowned out by the arguments over sovereignty taking place between the UK and Argentina.
This will be the first referendum held on the islands, but in a poll in the mid-1980s, 94.5% of those who took part supported staying British.
Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell, secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Falkland Islands, said it was an "extremely important decision'' that would determine ``once and for all'' the wishes of the islands' inhabitants.
He said he expected a “very similar result” to that in a referendum held by Gibraltar in 2002, in which the idea of Britain sharing sovereignty with Spain was rejected by 98.5% of residents.
“It will make it clear once and for all what the Falklands Islands want for their own destiny,” he said.
“I hope that the Argentinian government will respect the democratic wishes of the islanders.”
Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain would "respect and defend'' the outcome of the referendum.
“I have always said that it is up to the Falkland Islanders themselves to choose whether they want to be British and that the world should listen to their views,” he said.
“Thirty years ago they made clear that they wanted to stay British. That’s why British forces bravely liberated the island from Argentine invaders.
“Now the Argentine government wants to put that choice in doubt again, by shouting down the Islanders’ ability to speak for themselves and punishing them for exercising their own free choice.
“That’s why it’s absolutely right that the Islanders have today set out how they intend to make their voices heard once more. And Britain will be resolute in supporting their choice.
“Next year’s referendum will determine beyond doubt the views of the people of the Falklands. Britain will respect and defend their choice.
“We look to all UN members to live up to their responsibilities under the UN charter and accept the Islanders’ decision about how they want to live.”