Prince William will depart Wednesday night for his controversial tour of duty as a helicopter rescue pilot in the Falkland Islands, several days ahead of schedule.
A source told The Daily Beast that William would be leaving British shores tonight, but, Britain’s Ministry of Defense refused to comment on “operational” matters.
Prince William’s dramatic deployment comes after several days of rising tension between Argentina and Britain, culminating Tuesday night in an angry statement from the Argentine Foreign Ministry that William will arrive on the Falklands wearing “the uniform of a conqueror.”
Tensions between Argentina and Britain over the archipelago have flared up again dramatically in recent months, ahead of William’s deployment there and the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the bitter Falklands conflict.
London has controlled the islands, about 300 miles off the Argentine coast, since 1833. But on April 2, 1982, Argentine forces occupied them. Britain sent a naval force and thousands of troops to reclaim the territory. Six hundred and fifty Argentine and 255 British troops died in the 10-week conflict. Argentina surrendered but never abandoned its claim to the islands.
The personal attack on Prince William as a “conquistador” came just a day after it was confirmed that Britain’s most powerful warship, HMS Dauntless, is on its way to patrol the oil-rich waters around the islands. Dauntless boasts a powerful anti-aircraft system, the Sea Viper, capable of taking out aircraft from a range of several hundred miles.
The military are plainly taking no chances with William’s, or the islanders’, security.
William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said Tuesday in surprisingly bellicose comments that the ship was a “formidable vessel” and that “the Royal Navy packs a very considerable punch.” In an interview with Sky News he added that Britain “will always be in a position to defend the Falklands Islands … we will always reaffirm that ability and we will always make sure it is there.”
Argentina responded to Hague’s statement with some of her own saber rattling. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement late Tuesday night entitled “More Diplomacy, Less Weapons” and it declares “the Republic of Argentina rejects the British attempt to militarize a conflict that the United Nations already has said on numerous occasions both nations should resolve in bilateral negotiations. Prince William will arrive on the Malvinas islands as a member of his country’s armed forces. The Argentine people regret that the royal heir will arrive on national soil in the uniform of the conqueror and not with the wisdom of the statesman who works in the service of peace and dialogue among nations.”
Argentina has previously described Prince William’s posting to the islands as a “provocative act.”
Tension between Britain and Argentina over the disputed South Atlantic islands has been rising steadily as the 30th anniversary of the war approaches. Prince William is a convenient lightning conductor for Argentine resentment, but many suspect that Argentina’s renewed interest in the Falklands comes from the fact that British companies like Rockhopper and Desire petroleum are drilling for oil in waters around the islands.
Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner last week accused the British of “preying on our natural resources, our oil, our fish.”
Fernández last year embarked on a campaign to isolate the Falklands, which has won over several neighboring countries.
Last year, members of the newly powerful Mercosur trade bloc—which includes Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay—said they would stop ships bearing the Falkland Islands flag from entering their ports.
Support for Argentina’s claim has also built—much to Britain’s horror—in Washington, with Hillary Clinton backing Argentine calls for Argentina and Great Britain to enter into negotiations over the sovereignty of the Falklands.
But talk of “negotiations” irritates the British, who insist that all the talking was done 30 years ago and there is nothing more to say.
Margaret Thatcher was swept back to power in the U.K. on the wave of patriotic feeling that accompanied the conflict, and the 2,500 resident Falkland Islanders have never wavered either in their approval for Thatcher or in their desire to remain as the last piece of pink in the British Empire.
Anti-British sentiment is also rising in Buenos Aires ahead of Thursday’s Argentine premiere of the Oscar-nominated The Iron Lady, in which Meryl Streep plays Margaret Thatcher. Online trailers of the film linger on the moment when Thatcher decided to send the British fleet to counter Argentina’s 1982 invasion.
Jeremy Browne, the British Foreign Office minister responsible for relations with Latin America, is due to visit the islands in June to take part in the commemoration of Britain’s recapture of the islands from occupying Argentine troops.
Browne said he hoped his weeklong visit would not annoy Argentina, but that now seems about as forlorn a wish as Fernández and Prince William sitting down for a nice cup of tea.