U.N. court ruling expands Nicaragua's offshore rights

THE HAGUE Tue Nov 20, 2012 12:06am EST

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THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The International Court of Justice ruled on Monday that a cluster of disputed small islands in the western Caribbean belonged to Colombia and not to Nicaragua, but drew a demarcation line in favor of Nicaragua in the nearby waters.

The court said the territorial waters extending out from the seven islets, which are nearer Nicaragua's coast than Colombia's, should not cut into Nicaragua's continental shelf. The ruling reduced the expanse of ocean belonging to Colombia.

The decision, which is binding, increases the size of Nicaragua's continental shelf and economic exclusion zone in the Caribbean, potentially giving it access to underwater oil and gas deposits as well as fishing rights.

"The court agrees that the achievement of an equitable solution requires a line of delimitation to allow the parties to attain their maritime rights in a mutually balanced way," said Peter Tomka, presiding judge.

In 2007, the court, which is based in The Hague, ruled in a long-running dispute between the two countries that the three larger islands of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina belonged to Colombia.

The ruling on Monday related to a further seven islets and the associated offshore rights surrounding them. The three larger islands have been controlled by Colombia since Nicaragua ceded them in a 1928 treaty.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos rejected the changes to the border, which effectively put some islands outside of the rest of the archipelago, saying the ruling had "omissions, mistakes, excesses, inconsistencies, that we cannot accept".

"Colombia ... emphatically rejects that aspect of the judgment the Court has issued," he said in a statement.

"Therefore, we do not rule out any action or mechanism granted to us by international law to defend our rights."

The cluster of islands is over 700 km (437 miles) from the Colombian coast but only 200 km (125 miles) from Nicaragua.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega welcomed the ruling as a recognition of his country's rights to fishing in the area and potential oil deposits. He criticized Santos for suggesting that Colombia would fight the court's ruling.

"To whom will they appeal?" Ortega said at a public event in Managua. "This is a lack of seriousness for a president of such an important nation as Colombia."

(Reporting by Thomas Escritt, Helen Murphy in Bogota and Ivan Castro in Managua; Editing by Alison Williams and Christopher Wilson)

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