British diplomats have accused Argentina of plotting an economic blockade of the Falkland Islands amid fears Buenos Aires is attempting to block all flights from Chile to the Islands, reports the guardian.co.uk in a piece by Rory Carroll, Jonathan Franklin and Uki Goñi.
The government of Cristina Fernández has publicly threatened to cut the weekly route between Punta Arenas and Mount Pleasant airport, the Falklands' only air link with South America and its main link with the outside world.
British officials believe the service will disappear in an attempt by Argentina to make the Falklands too expensive for Britain to maintain.
If the LAN Chile flight is cancelled it would be pretty difficult to resist the already credible thesis that there is an economic blockade of the civilian population of the Falklands, a senior British diplomat in the region said on Wednesday.
The move, which diplomats predicted would come soon, would further isolate the disputed Islands and ratchet up tension with London on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the war between Argentina and Britain. British officials said if LAN resisted, Argentina would simply ban the use of its airspace.
Cristina Fernández anticipated the escalation in a speech to the UN last September, when she said Buenos Aires may block the flights, negotiated during a thaw in relations in 1999, if David Cameron's government refused to discuss sovereignty of the Falklands/Malvinas.
We'll wait a little longer, but otherwise we'll be forced to review the standing provisional agreements, she said.
However UK PM David Cameron has continued to refuse talks and recently angered the Argentine government by accusing it of colonialism in its campaign to win back the Falklands.
Argentine commentators reported last week that Buenos Aires was squeezing LAN, a view shared by British officials. The cancellation of the route would leave the Falklands entirely dependent on the twice-weekly 8,000-mile military flight from London via Ascension Island, a volcanic island on the equator.
Some of the people most directly and immediately affected would be the 250 Chileans working in the Falklands who would then have to travel to Chile via London. Another and highly sensitive issues are that of the relatives of Argentina's 600 war dead would also suffer by losing cemetery visits. Once a month the LAN flights stop in Rio Gallegos, Argentina.
The row puts LAN, which has one of the region's biggest fleets of aircraft, and Chile's conservative president, Sebastián Piñera, in an awkward position. Neither can be seen to bow to a neighbor's bullying, but there is commercial pressure for an accommodation.
The Falkland Islands flights are a profitable but tiny part of operations for LAN, which requires Argentine co-operation for much of its international business.
The airline, which Piñera partly owned before becoming president, has been unsuccessfully seeking permission from Argentina's aviation authorities for a Buenos Aires to Miami flight.
Argentina has cancelled landing rights at Aeroparque, Buenos Aires city domestic airport, for LAN's flights from Santiago and São Paulo. It has transferred these flights to Ezeiza, the city's international airport, which represents a major drawback for LAN because it is further outside the city and deters potential passengers. Chilean commentators speculated this was done to gain leverage over the airline.
Cristina Fernández is understood to have raised the issue of Falklands’ flights with her Chilean counterpart Piñera during a UN meeting in New York last September. She was expected to do so again earlier this month in Santiago, but the visit was pushed back because of her thyroid treatment.