Georgia seeks emergency decision from World Court

THE HAGUE, Netherlands - September 8, 2008 But, in a blunt demonstration of who is in charge in the tense zone around South Ossetia, Russian soldiers turned back a United Nations convoy. And the Georgian government said Russia reinforced its positions on the outskirts of the Black Sea port city of Poti over the weekend.

The World Court case opened a new legal front in the battle between Georgia and Russia for control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and began as French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Moscow with a European Union delegation for talks aimed at easing the standoff.

But Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said Monday just before the EU delegation sat down for talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that Moscow was against an autonomous EU monitoring mission.

He said such a force would lead to unnecessary "fragmentation" of international monitoring efforts by the U.N. and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Sarkozy warned, however, that the EU is "united" in its stance, saying "we will defend our convictions forcefully."

"We want peace, we want confidence, we want good-neighborly relations," he said.

Georgia accuses Russian forces, local militias and mercenaries of conducting a campaign of murder, forced displacement and attacks on towns and villages that started in the early 1990s and culminated in last month's brief war.

Ethnic Georgians "are being forced out of their homes by a campaign of harassment and persecution," Tina Burjaliani, Georgia's first Deputy Minister of Justice, told the court.

Georgia claims the campaign has left thousands of civilians dead and forced more than 300,000 from their homes.

Burjaliani said Tbilisi had filed its case "at a time of great distress in its history. A time when hundreds of thousands of its nationals are persecuted and displaced from their homes only because they are Georgians."

Burjaliani accused Russia of trying to undermine Georgia's independence "through a policy of divide and conquer ... that has ripped apart its delicate multiethnic culture."

Russia also accurses Georgia of crimes against humanity for launching a massive attack last month on South Ossetia, killing Russian peacekeepers and dozens of civilians. Moscow says its military actions since are aimed at protecting its civilians.

Lawyers for Moscow were addressing the court Monday afternoon. Outside the courtroom, Russia's ambassador to the Netherlands, Kirill Gevorgian, dismissed Georgia's case as "nonsense."

"The whole problem in Ossetia, in Abkhazia, is discrimination of Ossetians and Abkhazians by Georgia," he told reporters. "The line of Russia is to try to help the situation to keep the peace, to prevent the discrimination."

Russian leaders have bristled at the West for failing to condemn what they described as a Georgian "aggression" and indiscriminate killing of civilians, and threatened to prosecute Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili as a war criminal.

A month after the outbreak of war in the region and weeks after a cease-fire was approved, Russian troops remain entrenched deep inside Georgian territory.

The dispute has plunged relations between Moscow and the West to near Cold War levels of animosity.

The 15-judge tribunal, unofficially known as the World Court, will likely take years to deal with Georgia's case, which accuses Russia of breaching the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

"This is an extreme form of racial discrimination," said James Crawford, a lawyer for Georgia.

"There has been burning of houses, murder of civilians, looting of property and forced expulsions on a scale that surpasses the darkest moments of the civil war of 1991-92," he added, saying 10 percent of Georgia's population had been displaced by the Russian campaign.

After three days of hearings that began Monday in the wood-paneled Great Hall of Justice in the court's seat in The Hague, judges must decide whether they have jurisdiction before mulling whether to impose any immediate measures to safeguard civilians. Even if they do, it is unclear whether Russia will comply and the court has no way of enforcing its decisions.

"The court does not have an army or police force to make a party before it comply with its order. But the fact is that in the vast majority of orders, states comply," Paul Reichler, an American lawyer on Georgia's legal team, said ahead of the hearing.

Russia has signed a cease-fire agreement but also recognized both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent, a move denounced in Georgia and abroad. The regions make up roughly 20 percent of Georgia's territory - and include miles of prime coastline along the Black Sea.

In South Ossetia, the convoy of four vehicles from U.N. agencies waited for about an hour at the checkpoint in Karaleti, but was turned away after a brief discussion with a Russian general who arrived to negotiate. No reason was given for the decision.

"We tried to do a preliminary humanitarian assessment mission. It didn't work out today as we would have hoped, and we will make every effort to continue to conduct such missions in the future," said David Carden, who was leading the interagency mission by the World Food Program, UNICEF and the UN refugee agency.

The Russian general left immediately after the exchange and a serviceman at the checkpoint said he was unauthorized to comment on the reason for the refusal.

Wolfgang Dressman, the emergency response adviser to CARE International, said he had been turned away Sunday and told to come back again Monday.

Georgia's government said five Russian armored personnel carriers and about 50 troops were added to a post near Poti and one APC and 10 troops were added to a post on a main road into the city. Georgian officials said previously that there was a total of about 100 Russian troops at the two posts.

Georgia also said that two Russian air force jets illegally entered Georgian airspace Sunday and remained over Georgia for about 45 minutes.


Associated Press writers Steve Gutterman in Karaleti, Georgia and Jamey Keaten, Vladimir Isachenkov and Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow contributed to this report.

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