Monday, November 2, 1998 Published at 01:10 GMT
Row over 'Falklands talks' comment
President Menem: Visit ended as it began - in controversy
Argentine President Carlos Menem has provoked controversy on the final day of his visit to the UK with a claim that Prime Minister Tony Blair is ready to discuss the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands.
The disputed islands continued to hold centre stage in Anglo-Argentine relations as Mr Menem told the Buenos Aires Clarin newspaper that negotiations could begin in three years.
Mr Menem said on the final day of his official visit to the UK that Mr Blair's government had a "predisposition to open talks on the subject in the near future".
The comments flatly contradict Mr Blair's insistence that the six-day visit - the first by an Argentine head of state since 1960 - would not include any discussions about sovereignty.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Michael Howard was quick to make political capital out of the controversy, calling the talks claim "an astonishing statement".
"I shall be putting a question to him on the subject at the earliest opportunity."
Downing Street responded that there was no substance in what Mr Menem had said.
A spokesman said: "It was made clear at the talks earlier this week that sovereignty was not a matter for negotiation."
Mr Menem also said he hoped one day to visit the islands, which Argentines call the Malvinas.
"The acceptance we had in Britain was truly exceptional, not only on the part of the authorities, but on the part of the people," he said.
"This really gives me pause to believe that visiting the islands is possible."
There has been suggestion by some political commentators that Mr Menem's provocative words have been used as a "parting shot".
The Sun newspaper claimed, prior to the president's visit, that he had said "sorry" for the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands and the ensuing 10-week war in 1982, in which the UK reclaimed the South Atlantic archipelago.
Mr Menem immediately denied that he had apologised, and is known to have been highly embarrassed by the suggestion.
During his visit, Mr Menem sought reconciliation over the conflict that claimed 250 British and 750 Argentine lives by laying a wreath at St Paul's Cathedral in London.
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