By Andrew Osborn
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain said on Monday any attempt by Argentina to seize the assets of oil drillers operating in the disputed Falkand Islands would be unlawful after Buenos Aires said it would pursue a local judge's order against six firms.
On Saturday, a federal judge in Tierra del Fuego ordered the seizure of $156 million in bank accounts, boats and other property belonging to six European and U.S. oil companies operating in the islands.
Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman was quoted in the local press on Sunday as saying his country intended to pursue the case as part of its claim to the islands' sovereignty, something Britain rejects outright.
“We have always been very clear that this is an unlawful assertion of jurisdiction over the Falklands Islands’ continental shelf, which we reject, and we will raise it with the appropriate authorities," a spokeswoman for Britain's Foreign Office said, when asked how London would react.
“We are satisfied that the islands have the right to develop their hydrocarbons sector as a legitimate commercial venture with international oil and gas companies, and will continue to support them as they move forward. Argentine domestic law does not apply to the Falkland Islands.”
The companies named in the judge's order were Premier Oil Plc, Falkland Oil and Gas Ltd, Rockhopper Exploration Plc, Noble Energy Inc and Edison International Spa.
Argentina claims sovereignty over the South Atlantic islands which it calls the Malvinas, located about 435 miles (700 km) off the coast of Tierra del Fuego. They are inhabited by around 3,000 people, the overwhelming majority of whom say they wish to remain living in a British overseas territory.
Britain and Argentina fought a short war over the disputed archipelago in 1982, after the then Argentine military dictatorship seized the islands by force, and tensions have flared again in recent years with the discovery of oil deposits.
Argentina has promised to resolve the dispute through diplomacy. But the country faces elections in October ahead of which politicians often ramp up rhetoric. The companies involved declined to comment.
(Additional reporting by Karolin Schaps in London and by Maximiliano Rizzi in Buenos Aires and Rosalba O'Brien in Chile; Editing by Andrew Heavens)