A British newspaper story claiming British forces in the Falklands Islands have been put on high alert to deter a new threat of invasion by Argentina has been dismissed by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in London as nonsense.
The Sunday Express has what it calls an "exclusive" story splashed across its front page and two inside pages, with pictures, maps and scare headlines declaring: "Falklands Invasion Alert", "British garrison boosted to 5,000 as tensions rise in oil-rich islands", "Jets probe RAF's Falklands Shield".
A sub-heading says: "Frigate sails in to boost British strength after ‘no fly' zone incidents raise fear of new Argentine move on Islands". But a Ministry of Defence spokesman ridiculed the claims, describing them to me as "rubbish".
The story, spread over three pages, is mainly a hotpotch of old stories stitched together to present a scare picture which is not borne out by the facts. The one new claim, unsubstantiated, is that the garrison is to be greatly strengthened.
The story says: "The Sunday Express has learned from a top Ministry of Defence source that troop numbers on the Islands are being increased from 3,000 to 5,000.
The source said the move is in response to provocative Argentinian flights close to the ‘no-fly' zone....The military source told the Sunday Express: "A decision was made before the election to increase the number (of British troops) to over 5,000 by August. There has been a worrying increase in the number of Argentine aircraft probing reaction time to a threat close to the Islands' no-fly zone. We have moved a number of extra troops including some from the RAF regiment to protect Mount Pleasant airfield". (In fact most of the British garrison, including RAF Regiment guards, is routinely based at Mount Pleasant. Nor does the article mention the powerful Tornado striker aircraft stationed in the Falklands, ready to intercept any intruding aircraft, backed up by three radar stations maintaining 24-hour day surveillance over Falklands' air space.)
The newspaper says: "Islanders have been re-assured with the arrival in the past week of the Navy frigate Portland, which is believed to carry tactical nuclear weapons" (The MoD points out that this is part of a regular Royal Navy South Atlantic patrol).
Good relations with Argentina The news paper added: "Last night the MoD moved to calm an erupting diplomatic row by saying Britain is keen to build on its good relations with Argentina". A MoD official declared: We have a good relationship with the Argentine government. In fact, we have carried out a joint exercise with them in recent months".
The Sunday Express says worried "Islanders' fears were highlighted when Air Commodore Richard Lacy, the commander of British forces in the Falklands, spoke to local people about Argentina's economic threats.
The newspaper derives some of its assumptions from an article in the MoD's own staff newspaper "Focus" whose Editor in recent years has been Falkland Islander Graham Bound.
Focus states that "senior officers are monitoring tensions between Argentina and the Falkland Islands closely". It quotes Air Commodore Lacey as saying: "Falkland Islanders see a number of parallels between today's situation and that prior to April 1982. There are financial difficulties in Argentina and the Islanders perceive that Kirchner is making a lot of economic threats".
Strong British garrison Air Commodore Lacey reassured Islanders that the military situation is now very different. "We are here in strength and we can reinforce very quickly. We are here to deter military aggression and to reassure people".
The Express quotes Legislative Councillor Mike Summers as saying the Argentines are being "a bit difficult" and exerting pressure to decide sovereignty issues. It describes the Argentine ban on charter flights over its territory between Chile and the Falklands, creating difficulties for tourists and cruise ship passengers, and says Argentina is attempting to stop oil and cruise ship vessels entering Falklands territory.
The Sunday Express quotes Don Bonner, chauffeur to former Governor Sir Rex Hunt in 1982, as doubting the possibility of another invasion because of the strength of the British forces. He says: "I think all the locals feel quite secure".
The newspaper also refers to Argentina's annoyance that the future European Union constitution aims to give international recognition to Britain's claim to the Falklands.
Prospects for oil discoveries The Sunday Express also carries stories about Falkands' prosperity based on tourism and squid fishing, which it inaccurately claims earns £70-million a year, saying "the average Islander is now a third richer than his counterpart in England".
Another article describes the prospects of finding offshore oil as promising and asks: "Would Argentina threaten another invasion to lay claim to the riches of the South Atlantic?"
The article says Falkland defence costs the UK £70-million a year, towards which the locals pay nothing. (What it does not mention is that much of this is in salaries which would be paid anywhere in the world, that the Falklands provide challenging and comparatively cheap training areas for the forces, and that the Falklands Government has pledged to contribute to defence costs from any future oil revenue.)
The article also fails to mention that one major difference, in contrast to military dictatorship in 1982, is that while Argentina persists with its sovereignty claim, it now has an elected civilian government whose declared policy is to pursue its claim by peaceful diplomatic means, not by military aggression. The Argentine armed forces are also discredited and weaker.
By Harold Briley, London