By Mohammed Abbas
LONDON (Reuters) - A referendum on the fate of the Falkland Islands is a publicity stunt with no legal status, Argentina's ambassador to Britain said on Monday, warning that oil exploitation around the territory was impossible without better regional ties.
The inhabitants of the islands, some 300 miles off the Argentine coast and which Buenos Aires calls "Las Malvinas", are due to take part in a referendum on March 10-11 to find if they want to remain British.
The vote comes as relations between Argentina and Britain worsen over the territory, where the two nations fought a 10-week war in 1982.
"This referendum has no legal grounds. It's not approved, nor will it be recognized by the United Nations or the international community," Argentine envoy Alicia Castro told reporters at a briefing in London.
"So this referendum is little more than a public relations exercise," he said.
Britain says the islanders have a right to self-determination, and insists they be present at any talks with Argentina over the future of the islands, but Buenos Aires says the matter should only be discussed by two sovereign states.
"The Argentine Government has already dismissed the referendum before it has even taken place, a position that runs counter to the universal principles of democracy and self-determination," a British Foreign Office spokesman said.
Argentina sees the Falklands' roughly 3,000 inhabitants as foreign implants, and has compared them to Israeli settlers on land Palestinians want for a future state.
The referendum is widely expected to confirm the islanders' wish for the remote territory to remain under British control.
"We hope that the outcome of this referendum will demonstrate beyond doubt the views of the people of the Falklands and whether or not they wish to remain a British Overseas Territory," the Foreign Office spokesman added.
Argentina has ramped up its claims to the islands, where oil exploration firms are expected to produce their first oil in 2017, and last month Argentina's foreign minister visited London but did not meet his British counterpart.
Castro said Latin American countries backed Argentina, and warned that oil exploration around the Falklands would be unfeasible without proper links to the South American continent.
Regional trading bloc Mercosur, which includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, has banned Falklands-flagged ships from docking at their ports.
"Oil exploration is feasible, but oil exploitation is unfeasible ... Imagine if a spill happens there in some remote islands 8,000 miles from here ... with no proper link to the continent, without doctors, logistics, engineers," Castro said.
Argentine hostility has not deterred oil companies. Rockhopper Exploration has formed a $1 billion partnership with Premier Oil to pump oil from its find north of the islands.
(Editing by Tim Castle and Jon Hemming)
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