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15 years after Falklands war, British grip strong

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Argentine general now says 1982 invasion 'hasty'

June 15, 1997
Web posted at: 4:12 p.m. EDT (2012 GMT)

STANLEY, Falkland Islands (CNN) -- Flocks of sheep still graze and penguins still frolic amid the barren, idyllic landscape of the Falkland Islands, just as they did 15 years ago.

But a closer look reveals stark evidence that, back then, the eyes of the world were on these tiny specks of land in the South Atlantic, just 800 miles from frigid Antarctica.

The skeletal remains of a crashed aircraft; the ruins of an abandoned military field hospital; white crosses marking the graves of soldiers who fell -- all tell the story of the bitter, pitched military battle played out between two modern nations.

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Saturday marked the 15th anniversary of Argentina's surrender of the Falkland Islands -- or the Malvinas, as the Argentines prefer to call them -- to Great Britain. Two months earlier, an Argentine military force had seized the islands, which had been controlled by the British since 1833 but were also claimed by Argentina.

Footage from 1982
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At the time of the 1982 conflict, the Falklands -- home to just 1,800 people and 600,000 sheep -- seemed hardly a valuable strategic prize. Indeed, it is widely believed that the military junta then in power in Buenos Aires launched the invasion primarily to buoy its deteriorating domestic political situation.

In an interview Saturday, a former Argentine military commander admitted that, in hindsight, the decision to invade the Falklands was hasty.

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"We were not prepared for war," said then-military governor Gen. Luciano Menendez in an interview with the Buenos Aires radio station Mitre. "The Argentine government decided to occupy the islands with 500 men and open negotiations, but it changed its mind and sent in more troops. And when the British attacked, we fought back."

War ushered in the end of the Argentine junta

The conflict claimed 712 Argentine soldiers; Britain lost 255 people. And though defeated in war, Argentina still maintains its territorial claim to the Falklands. Indeed, it was enshrined into the Argentine constitution in 1995.

However, the war debacle helped lead to the collapse of the military government, eventually ushering in elections and a new era of democracy for Argentina.

The war also hardened the attitudes of the staunchly British Falkland Islanders, as epitomized by a huge Union Jack painted on the roof of one local house.

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"As far as we're concerned, Argentina doesn't exist," says Brooke Hardcastle, whose home was hit by 26 bullets on the day of the Argentine invasion. "We don't need Argentina, and I'm sure they don't need us."

"It's British as far as I'm concerned. It always will be, and they don't have a claim to it," says islander Brian Aldridge.

Britain and Argentina resumed relations in 1990 and have signed agreements on oil exploration and fishing in the waters surrounding the islands. But a British military force remains on the island, and the London government has invested in new roads, a port and an airport.

Fifteen years after the shooting stopped, the threat of a military conflict with Argentina seems remote -- and the feeling that the islands will long remain British seems pervasive.

Correspondent Harris Whitbeck contributed to this report.

 
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