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Friday, 15 March, 2002, 01:26 GMT
Britain hails its 'friend' Argentina
British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon lays a wreath at a Buenos Aires memorial honouring Argentina's dead
Geoff Hoon honoured Argentine victims of the conflict
Relations between Britain and its "friend" Argentina are in "excellent shape", UK Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon has said.

Mr Hoon said Britain's defence relationship with the South American country was one of the most important outside Nato.

His comments, made in a speech in Argentinian capital Buenos Aires, came just weeks before the 20th anniversary of the 1982 Falklands War.

Mr Hoon said: "We learn from the past in order to be able to build for the future.

"It would therefore be wrong of me not to refer to the fact that we are this year in the 20th anniversary of the one serious rupture in our relationship... which cost the lives of hundreds of people from both countries."

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon
Geoff Hoon hailed recent military cooperation between the two countries
More than 800 servicemen died during the 10-week war, which began with the Argentine invasion of the Falkland islands.

The conflict led to nearly a decade of icy relations between the two states, with diplomatic relations restored only in 1990.

Debt-ridden Argentina has been in the throes of a political and economic crisis in recent months, which has led to at least 25 people dying in widespread unrest.

Mr Hoon said Britain "grieved" to see its friend suffer, but would support it.

"Friends stick with each other in good times and bad. They are there for the long haul."

Military partnership

The defence secretary was speaking at the end of a tour in which he also visited the Falklands, and met his Argentine counterpart Horacio Jaunarena and Argentine Foreign Minister Carlos Ruckauf.

Officials said Mr Hoon's visit to Buenos Aires was to discuss the possibility of increasing the involvement of Argentine military forces in international peacekeeping missions.

The sinking of Argentinian warship General Belgrano
The Falklands conflict cost more than 800 lives
During his speech, to the Argentine defence ministry, he heralded military co-operation between the two countries, which has included peacekeeping in Cyprus and the Balkans.

Earlier, he refused to be drawn by reporters on whether Britain would accept Argentina's offer to help with peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan.

He said only that Britain was grateful for the offer, and was looking forward to Argentina playing a part in support operations if they crop up.

Also during the visit he laid a wreath at a memorial honouring Argentina's dead from the Falklands conflict, and briefly met some Argentine war veterans.

However, he was heckled by a small group of protesters who screamed: "Long live heroes of the General Belgrano," [Argentine warship sunk by Britain with the loss of 368 lives].

Blair visit

Argentina still lays claim to the Falklands, which it calls the Malvinas.

However, it says its claims to the islands, populated by about 2,200 people of mostly British ancestry, are nowadays entirely peaceful.

Tony Blair became the first serving British prime minister to visit Argentina in July 2001.

He said he hoped the two countries could put behind them the differences which led to the 1982 conflict, and start to work together for the future.

The BBC's Paul Adams in Buenos Aires
"People here believe the islands will one day be theirs"
See also:

13 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Thatcher rejects Falklands trip
02 Aug 01 | UK Politics
Blair's historic Argentina visit
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