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Costa Rica and Nicaragua take border dispute to international court

While Nicaragua warned that Costa Rica was sounding the drums of war in a border conflict, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague began hearing arguments on Tuesday concerning a dispute between the two Central American nations over ownership of a small island in the mouth of a border river.

Costa Rica wants the ICJ to order the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Nicaraguan troops it claims are illegally occupying land to enable the construction of a canal across Costa Rican territory. "Costa Rica will not allow itself to be intimidated and will not accept anybody trying to impose a fait accompli ," argued Costa Rican Deputy Foreign Minister Edgar Ugalde Álvarez before the justices.

Last October, Nicaraguan troops began to occupy Calero Island, located at the mouth of the San Juan river on the Caribbean coast. President Daniel Ortega explained that the soldiers were sent to the region to stop drug traffickers and dredge the river. Tensions were heightened when Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla sent a police force to the area. Costa Rica abolished its military in 1948.

On Monday, Nicaragua's Vice President Jaime Morales Carazo charged that Costa Rica was secretly training an army on an abandoned farm nearby that was once owned by the late Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, and which was later expropriated by then-Costa Rican President Rodrigo Carazo Odio at the height of the Sandinista revolution in 1978.

Nicaraguan military spokesman Juan Ramón Morales, told the Managua daily El Nuevo Diario that there were groups of Costa Ricans "trying to provoke an armed conflict" near the San Juan river. The Costa Rican government has denied both claims. Álvarez told the ICJ that Nicaragua's unauthorized dredging of the San Juan river has caused "significant damage to fragile ecosystems" as well as to forests and protected wetlands. Costa Rica said it would present satellite images from the United Nations that illustrate the environmental damage in the area.

Nicaragua was expected to present its case late Tuesday. The ICJ has set aside three days for arguments as well as questions, but a decision isn't expected to be handed down for some years. At an emergency meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) last year, members urged both countries to resolve their differences diplomatically.