By Maximiliano Rizzi
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - An Argentine judge has ordered the seizure of assets of oil drilling companies operating in the Falklands Islands, including property held by U.S. firm Noble Energy, as the country takes a firmer line on the disputed territory ahead of October elections.
Lilian Herraez, a federal judge in Tierra del Fuego, ordered the seizure of $156 million in bank accounts, boats and other property, the government said on Saturday.
The companies named in the order were Premier Oil Plc, Falkland Oil and Gas Ltd, Rockhopper Exploration Plc, Noble Energy Inc and Edison International Spa.
A source with knowledge of the situation said the companies in question do not generally hold any assets in Argentina or use Argentine waters.
But the public prosecutor's office said in a statement that investigators "had identified the assets of the foreign companies and discovered that one of them, U.S. firm Noble Energy, has a local office registered in Argentina." Authorities would move to freeze those assets, it said.
Falkland Oil and Gas and Rockhopper declined to comment. Noble Energy, the British foreign office and the other mentioned companies could not immediately be reached for comment.
"The foreign ministry will be notified of the court order so that by diplomatic means and in compliance with international treaties it can be carried out," the statement said.
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 and occupied by around 3,000 people who mostly say they wish them to remain a British overseas territory.
Britain and Argentina fought a short war in 1982, after the then Argentine military dictatorship briefly seized the islands, and tensions have escalated again in recent years with the discovery of oil deposits.
Argentina has promised to resolve the dispute through diplomacy, but politicians often ramp up rhetoric around election time.
(Reporting by Maximiliano Rizzi, Additional reporting and writing by Rosalba O'Brien; Editing by Tom Brown)