Falkland Islands mourn Thatcher, Argentines bitter over past

BUENOS AIRES Mon Apr 8, 2013 10:15pm BST

1 of 2. The Falkland Islands flag flies at half mast in front of the Visitor Centre after the death of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, in Port Stanley April 8, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Gary Clement

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BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Falkland Islanders mourned Margaret Thatcher on Monday, revering her as their liberator after a 1982 invasion by Argentine forces, but many Argentines bitterly recalled her role in defending the South Atlantic territory.

Flags flew at half-staff on the Falklands after news of Thatcher's death on Monday aged 87. The head of the local legislative assembly said it was a day of great sadness and another resident praised her as "our Winston Churchill."

In Buenos Aires, however, one resident named Jose Raschella, 48, said: "I hope God can forgive her because I can't."

Thatcher sent a task force to recapture the islands, known in Argentina as Las Malvinas, in an operation she considered one of the triumphs of her 1979-1990 rule.

Argentina still presses its sovereignty claim over the Falklands and in the past year has stepped up rhetoric against Britain despite a referendum last month in which the islanders overwhelmingly voted to stay British.

"There's absolutely no doubt that Mrs. Thatcher had a special feeling for the Islands, she led a very difficult recapture of the Islands ... and the Falklands were always in her heart," Mike Summers, chair of the Falklands' eight-member assembly, told Reuters by telephone from Port Stanley.

"She's a very much revered person in the Falklands for leading our return to freedom in 1982, and it will be a day of great sadness for Falkland Islanders."

Summers said a memorial service would be held but it was not yet clear when.

The barren and windy islands off the tip of Patagonia, at the southern end of South America, have a population of around 2,500.

'WAR CRIMINAL'

About 650 Argentines and 255 Britons were killed in the 1982 war, which started when Argentina's military leaders of the time ordered the invasion on April 2 and ended with the recapture of Port Stanley by British troops on June 14.

The defeat helped bring an end to Argentina's dictatorship and many Argentines today see the war as a doomed and cynical move by the military leaders who murdered and "disappeared" thousands of their own people in a "dirty war" against suspected leftists.

Nonetheless, most Argentines are convinced the islands belong to their country, viewing the issue as a patriotic cause.

President Cristina Fernandez has piled pressure on Britain to negotiate the sovereignty of the islands - something London refuses to do unless the islanders themselves request talks.

Thatcher's death stirred up angry memories in Argentina. On Twitter, left-leaning political groups celebrated the demise of a "war criminal."

"The pain that she left our country can't be erased, we'll never forget all that pain," said Raschella, a musician.

Carlos Grillo, a 63-year-old shop owner in Buenos Aires, said he had mixed feelings.

"I hated her at that time, so I can't be impartial. I can't say 'I'm sorry (she died).' I'm not sorry," Grillo said. "But that goes against my Catholic faith, so I can't say I wanted it to happen either."

The Argentine government made no official comment.

'RIGHT PERSON, RIGHT TIME'

Tim Miller, 60, owner of a Falkland Islands garden centre and store that sells patriotic gifts and memorabilia, recalled the 1982 conflict.

"For me, she was for the Falklands what Winston Churchill was to Great Britain in 1940. She was the right person in the right place at the right time and did the right thing."

Miller acknowledged that she was a divisive figure in Britain. "But to the Falklands she was our Winston Churchill."

In Buenos Aires, while most people were pleased or indifferent about Thatcher's death, Alcides Francesco expressed some admiration for the British leader.

"She was an English patriot," the 65-year-old worker said. "If we'd had several Margaret Thatchers here, the Falkland Islands would be ours."

(Editing by Kieran Murray and Frances Kerry)

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