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Argentina, Chile agree to put daggers down over tiny Beagle isles

For more than a decade, Argentina and Chile have been feuding with words and almost with bullets over three small windswept islands at the tip of South America.

The feud, centering on Lennox, Picton, and Nueva islands, remains intense. But now the two nations have agreed, under Vatican auspices, to peacefully resolve the dispute over the islands located at the Atlantic entry to the Beagle Channel.

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Settlement, however, will not come easy. Argentina and Chile have traditionally firmly insisted upon control of the islands which Chile occupies.

The words ''they are ours'' have frequently been used by spokesmen for both foreign ministries.

At first glance, the islands would seem of little consequence. Sheep raising is about the only activity on the forlorn little islands and the only inhabitants are a small, hardy band of Chilean sheepherders. But the islands' strategic location at the eastern end of the Beagle Channel and the possibility that oil exists in the waterway make them valuable to whichever nation controls them.

In the past, Argentina and Chile have agreed to work peacefully for settlement of the dispute - only to have that pledge wither in a rain of patriotic rhetoric, a situation that has brought these two neighboring countries almost to the point of war.

This latest agreement to try to resolve the conflict, however, appears more promising than previous agreements. Both sides seem determined to work out at least a modus vivendi through which they can find a solution.

This latest development may in some measure be linked to the determination of Argentina's new civilian government to try to find solutions to an array of domestic and foreign problems.

But it may also in part stem from Chile's assessment that a war would be disastrous to its fragile economy.

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Neither side actually has the military might to sustain a war. The Argentine defeat at the hands of the British over the Falkland Islands in 1982 was more than a simple defeat. It told Argentine strategists that their whole military training was inadequate.

Chile, for its part, has a better-trained military and armed forces analysts have long thought it could outmaneuver the Argentines. But its weaponry is outmoded and the nation's string-bean geography, stretching 3,000 miles along the spine of the Andes, would make defense of national territory difficult.

Efforts to resolve the Beagle Channel dispute date back 10 years.

The Vatican, under Pope John Paul II, entered the dispute five years ago and through a succession of diplomatic efforts has sought to bring the two sides together. It succeeded Monday when the foreign ministers of the two nations, Dante Caputo of Argentina and Jaime del Valle of Chile, signed an agreement of friendship at the Vatican.

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