LONDON Indian Ocean islanders expelled from the British-ruled Chagos archipelago during the Cold War to make way for a U.S. military base lost their long-running legal battle to return home on Thursday.
About 2,000 Chagossians were evicted from their palm-fringed homes in the late 1960s when Britain allowed the United States to build an air and naval base on Diego Garcia, the archipelago's largest island.
The islanders have long contested their removal and the way it was carried out, but the European Court of Human Rights definitively rejected the exiled residents' case on Thursday.
It said their case, which was lodged in 2004, was inadmissible because they had already been compensated in the British courts.
"In accepting and receiving compensation, the applicants had effectively renounced bringing any further claims to determine whether the expulsion and exclusion from their homes had been unlawful and breached their rights," the court, in the French city of Strasbourg, ruled.
The claims, brought forward by 1,786 Chagos natives and their descendants, concerned the "callous and shameful treatment" suffered during their removal from the islands between 1967 and 1973, the court said.
"These claims had, however, been raised in the domestic courts and settled, definitively," the European court said.
Britain, which has ruled the islands since the 19th century, agreed in 1966 to lease Diego Garcia to the United States for 50 years. The islanders were mostly transferred to Mauritius or the Seychelles and were barred from returning to their homes.
The United States has since used the military base to carry out bombing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A first case brought against the British government by the exiled islanders in 1975 was settled in 1982 with a payment of 4 million pounds ($6.5 million) and provision of land worth one million pounds. The legality of the procedure was also upheld by Britain's House of Lords in 2008.
The UK Chagos Support Association said it was "saddened and shocked" by the European Court's decision, which cannot be appealed. It urged Britain's coalition government to stand by its pre-election promise to bring about "a just and fair settlement" to the islanders' case.
Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed the end of the lengthy legal process.
"We have made clear our regret for the wrongs done to the Chagossian people over forty years ago," he said.
He said the government would now "take stock" of its policy on resettlement of the territory, as previously promised, and would be "as positive as possible in (its) engagement with Chagossian groups and all interested parties".
However, he said there were "fundamental difficulties" with resettlement. ($1 = 0.6147 British pounds)
(Reporting by Natalie Huet; Editing by Andrew Osborn)