London: Falkland Islanders voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining a British oversees territory in a referendum designed to send a strong message to Argentina, which earlier derided the poll as illegal.
Some 92 percent of the islands’ 1,672 eligible voters turned out to deliver a 98.8 percent “yes” vote in favour of staying an internally self-governing British territory, election officials in the capital Port Stanley announced.
Only three votes out of 1,517 were cast against the islands remaining British.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed the result, saying it “demonstrates more clearly than ever the Falkland Islanders’ wish to remain an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom.
“We have always been clear that we believe in the rights of the Falklands people to determine their own futures and to decide on the path they wish to take,” he said in a statement.
“It is only right that, in the twenty-first century, these rights are respected.
“All countries should accept the results of this referendum and support the Falkland Islanders as they continue to develop their home and their economy.”
International observers — from Canada, Chile, Mexico, New Zealand, Paraguay, the United States and Uruguay — monitored the polling stations, which opened at 10:00 am (1300 GMT) on Sunday and closed at 9.00 pm on Monday.
They declared that the referendum, which asked: “Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?” had been “free, fair and technically sound”.
The resounding “yes” result, delivered at around 10:30 pm (0130 GMT) on the remote South Atlantic archipelago sparked unprecedented celebrations.
“There’s so much noise here, it’s huge,” Legislative Assembly member Barry Elsby told AFP.
“There are hundreds of people outside the cathedral, celebrating, singing and waving flags.
Elsby called it a “tremendous point in time” for the islands which “sends a message around the world”.
He said that Argentina would be “very frightened” because “this process was democratic.
“They can’t dismiss it,” he added.
Argentina, which invaded the islands in 1982 before its troops were ousted by a British task force after a short but bloody war, maintained its dismissive line on the vote.
“It’s a manoeuvre with no legal value, which has neither been convened nor supervised by the United Nations,” said Alicia Castro, Argentina’s ambassador to London.
“We respect their way of life, their identity. We respect that they want to continue being British, but the territory they inhabit is not British,” she told Buenos Aires radio station La Red.
Buenos Aires has stepped up its sovereignty claims against the backdrop of the discovery of potentially valuable oil reserves in the territorial waters of the islands it calls “Las Malvinas”, some 400 kilometres (250 miles) away from the Argentine coast.
Falklanders hope the result will arm them with a definitive statement on their wishes to counter Argentine President Cristina Kirchner’s relentless and often emotional diplomatic offensive.
Four-fifths of the archipelago’s 2,563 permanent residents live in the town, with its typically British pubs and red telephone boxes.
And for the referendum, homes and shops were festooned with posters and flags, both Britain’s Union Jack and the deep blue Falklands standard, which features both the Union Jack and the islands’ crest — a sheep, a wooden ship and the motto “Desire the Right”.
Britain has held the Falklands since 1833 but Buenos Aires maintains that the barren islands are occupied Argentinian territory.
Buenos Aires claims the islanders are an “implanted” colonial population and thus do not have the right to self-determination.
Marlene Short, who runs a diner in Stanley with her husband Richard, moved to the Falklands in 1989.
“Argentina will always have their views, but today is to try and convince anyone that is doubtful as to whether we remain British that today we desperately want to,” the 43-year-old told AFP.
Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt pledged to heed the result.
“Today people on (the) Falkland Islands will express their view on whether they want the islands to remain part of the UK or not. We will listen,” he tweeted.
The referendum was a logistical challenge, taking place across 12,000 square kilometres (4,700 square miles) of inhospitable territory.
Several hundred islanders are scattered in isolated sheep farms and tiny settlements across the bleakly picturesque landscape outside Stanley, known as “Camp”.
There were four static polling stations: one in Stanley and one at Goose Green on East Falkland, with two in West Falkland at Port Howard and Fox Bay.
To reach the most remote voters, mobile polling booths were transported around the islands by a five-seater plane and five four-wheel-drive vehicles rumbling along the rough tracks with an observer in the passenger seat and a ballot box in the back.
London, some 13,000 kilometres (8,000 miles) away, says it will not discuss sovereignty issues with Buenos Aires against the islanders’ wishes.