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Friday, 30 June, 2000, 13:09 GMT 14:09 UK
Belgrano: Ghost from the deep
The Sun frontpage
The Sun in jingoistic mood. The headline was later pulled
The warship the General Belgrano was the first big casualty of the Falklands conflict. The story of its sinking lingers in our national psyche. Now relatives of the dead want compensation.

Eighteen years after it was torpedoed and sent to the bottom of the south Atlantic, the Belgrano has been raised, in spirit at least.

Relatives of some of the 323 Argentines who died in the attack are suing the UK government for the loss of life.
Belgrano sinking
Two-thirds of the Belgrano crew survived

Lawyers in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, have said they will launch a case for damages at the European Court of Human Rights next week. They will claim the sinking violated the Hague convention on the conduct of war.

The surprise move has re-ignited passions concerning one of the most controversial episodes in modern British military history.

Crucially, the attack on the General Belgrano, by the British nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Conqueror, took place outside a 200-mile exclusion zone that surrounded the Falkland Islands.

The zone had been declared by the British government following Argentina's occupation of the Falklands in April. Downing Street had warned ships breaching the zone would be targeted under British rules of engagement.

But the rules were secretly changed by Admiral Sir Terence Lewin, then the Chief of Defence Staff. Although the Belgrano was south of the exclusion area, the prime minister of the day, Margaret Thatcher, authorised an attack.
The Belgrano
Originally US navy ship called USS Phoenix
Weathered 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour
Sold to Argentina in 1951
Modernised in 1970s and fitted with British missiles
Sunk by three torpedoes in 1982

Mrs Thatcher later justified the action, claiming the ship had been sailing towards the Royal Navy taskforce. But some time before the attack, the craft had turned and was heading for the Argentine mainland.

Initially these facts were not forthcoming, and the sinking was heralded as a great military triumph.

The Sun newspaper famously attempted to catch the spirit with the frontpage headline "GOTCHA" This was changed for later editions, as fears set in that all 1,093 Argentines on board might have perished.

Argentine retalliation

The strike signalled the first loss of life in the Falklands conflict and two days later Argentina hit back with a missile attack on the British destroyer HMS Sheffield, killing 20.

Precise facts about the Belgrano attack might have remained buried but for the efforts of the senior Ministry of Defence civil servant, Clive Ponting.

Mr Ponting leaked confidential documents to the Labour MP Tam Dalyell which noted the Argentine cruiser had been moving away from the islands.

Mr Ponting was later tried under the Official Secrets Act, but found not guilty.

Downing Street refused to back down and the following year the episode gave rise to one of the most memorable attacks on a prime minister.

TV grilling

During the 1983 general election campaign, Diana Gould, of Cheltenham, seized the chance to quiz Mrs Thatcher on the issue during a live question and answer session on BBC TV's Nationwide.

Mrs Thatcher was visibly rattled by the grilling, although it seemed not to harm her re-election campaign.

England fan
Is this the Belgrano legacy? England football fan taunts police in Charleroi

While the British public seemed to forgive the attack on the Belgrano, the action damaged Britain's good standing with the rest of the world. The Argentine media used it to paint the British as pirates and butchers.

Yet by 1994, the Argentine defence ministry had changed its tune, calling the attack a "legal act of war".

In Britain though, some sense the jingoism that surrounded the attack, continues to infect society in a pernicious manner.

Rex Nash, of Liverpool University's Football Research Department, has coined the term "Belgrano mentality" to explain football fans' often brutal conduct abroad.

"When you hear them chanting `You'll never beat the English', they're not talking about football. They are talking about life in general," said Mr Nash.

But 18 years after the south Atlantic assault, in a European court, "the English" may end up paying for its attack after all.

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