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Europe: Trade, Politics Mingle In Menem's Visit To England

London, 28 October 1998 (RFE/RL) - Argentine President Carlos Menem is in London for a six-day official visit aimed at reconciling the two countries who were enemies during the 1982 Falklands war.

His visit is the first to Britain by an Argentine president not just since the Falkland Islands conflict, but for almost 40 years. It will include talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, lunch with Queen Elizabeth, and a keynote speech on Argentine-British relations.

One of the highlights will be a ceremony today at St. Paul's Cathedral where Menem was to lay a wreath to those killed in the Falklands war: 652 Argentine soldiers and 252 British servicemen.

Although his country lost the Falklands war, Menem is expected to stress Argentina's continued determination to recover the South Atlantic islands, which it calls the Malvinas, although he will say this must be done peacefully.

The British government insists there will be no discussion of the sovereignty of the British colony when Menem and Blair meet at Downing Street for talks tomorrow. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook says the British government is sticking to its position that there will be no change in the sovereignty of the islands unless the 2,000 Falkland islanders, most of British descent, request a change.

"That has been the position of this government, of the previous government, it will remain our position. There will be no change in the sovereignty of the islands unless the Falkland islanders ask for it," Cook said.

The 10-week war over the Falklands broke out in 1982 when Argentina's then-military strongman, General Leopoldo Galtieri, ordered an invasion of the islands, claimed by Argentina since 1833. The conscript army was driven from the islands in fighting with British troops who were landed by a naval task force.

On the eve of the present visit, the Argentine president said Argentina and Britain should be reconciled just as Britain and Germany had put World War II behind them. Argentine Foreign Minister Guido de Tella says the London visit is the start of a historic reconciliation between the two countries.

"We had a war and we lost a war. Even if I don't have a very high regard for history, I would say this is a historic moment. Yes, it is. It is the end of a period and the beginning of what will be an even more fruitful period in the future," de Tella said.

A notable absentee at the ceremonies to welcome the Argentine delegation will be former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who made the decision to win back the Falkland Islands by force.

The main focus of the visit by the 100-strong Argentine delegation will be growing trade between the two countries. Britain is the third largest investor in Argentina after the U.S. and Spain.

Commentators point to the irony in the fact that Menem is being welcomed to Britain at a time when former Chilean military dictator General Augusto Pinochet, who sided with Britain in the Falklands war, is under arrest in London. A Spanish judge is seeking Pinochet's extradition for alleged atrocities against Spanish nationals during his crackdown against left-wing activists in the 1970s.