By Marcos Brindicci and Juan Bustamante
STANLEY, Falkland Islands (Reuters) - Residents of the Falkland Islands voted almost unanimously to stay under British rule in a referendum aimed at winning global sympathy as Argentina intensifies its sovereignty claim.
The official count on Monday showed 99.8 percent of islanders voted in favor of remaining a British Overseas Territory in the two-day poll, which was rejected by Argentina as a meaningless publicity stunt. There only three "no" votes out of about 1,500 cast.
"Surely this must be the strongest message we can get out to the world," said Roger Edwards, one of the Falklands' assembly's eight elected members.
"That we are content, that we wish to retain the status quo ... with the right to determine our own future and not become a colony of Argentina."
Pro-British feeling is running high in the barren and blustery islands that lie off the tip of Patagonia, at the southern end of South America. Turnout was 92 percent among the 1,649 Falklands-born and long-term residents registered to vote.
Three decades after hundreds died when Argentina and Britain went to war over the far-flung South Atlantic archipelago, islanders have been perturbed by Argentina's increasingly vocal claim over the Malvinas - as the islands are called in Spanish.
Local politicians hope the resounding "yes" vote will help them lobby support abroad, for example in the United States, which has a neutral position on the sovereignty issue.
"We're never going to change Argentina's claim and point of view, but I believe there are an awful lot of countries out there that are sitting on the fence ... this is going to show them quite clearly what the people think," Edwards said.
The mood was festive as islanders lined up in the cold to vote in the low-key island capital of Stanley, some wearing novelty outfits made from the red, white and blue British Union Jack flag.
"We are British and that's the way we want to stay," said Barry Nielsen, who wore a Union Jack hat to cast his ballot at the town hall polling station in Stanley, where most of the roughly 2,500 islanders live.
PRESSURE ON BRITAIN
Argentina's fiery left-leaning president, Cristina Fernandez, has piled pressure on Britain to negotiate the sovereignty of the islands, something London refuses to do unless the islanders request talks.
Most Latin American countries and many other developing nations have voiced support for Argentina, which has stepped up its demands since London-listed companies started drilling for oil and natural gas off the Falklands' craggy coastline.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the referendum clearly showed the islanders wanted to remain a British overseas territory.
"All countries should accept the results of this referendum and support the Falkland Islanders as they continue to develop their home and their economy," he said in a statement.
"We have always been clear that we believe in the rights of the Falklands people to determine their own futures and to decide on the path they wish to take. It is only right that, in the 21st century, these rights are respected."
However, officials in Buenos Aires questioned the referendum's legitimacy. They say the sovereignty dispute must be resolved between Britain and Argentina and cite U.N. resolutions calling on London to sit down for talks.
"This (referendum) is a ploy that has no legal value," said Alicia Castro, Argentina's ambassador to London.
"Negotiations are in the islanders' best interest. We don't want to deny them their identity. They're British, we respect their identity and their way of life and that they want to continue to be British. But the territory they occupy is not British," she told an Argentine radio station.
Argentina has claimed the islands since 1833, saying it inherited them from the Spanish on independence and that Britain expelled an Argentine population.
The 1982 war, which killed about 650 Argentines and 255 Britons and ended when Argentina surrendered, is widely remembered in Argentina as a humiliating mistake by the discredited and brutal dictatorship in power at the time.
But most Argentines think the islands rightfully belong to the South American country and they remain a potent national symbol that unites political foes.
Falkland islanders, who are enjoying an economic boom thanks partly to the sale of oil and natural gas exploration licenses, say they do not expect Monday's result to sway Argentina.
"Argentina's stance on the Falklands will stay the same," said Stanley resident Craig Paice, wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan "Our Islands, Our Decision" as he waited to vote on Monday.
"But hopefully the world will now listen and know the people of the Falkland Islands have a voice."
(Additional reporting by Magali Cervantes in Stanley, Helen Popper in Buenos Aires and Michael Holden in London; Writing by Helen Popper; Editing by Pravin Char)