UPDATE 3-U.N. court ruling expands Nicaragua's offshore rights

THE HAGUE, Nov 19 (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 can not 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.

"This is the best result we could hope for," Carlos

Arguello, Nicaragua's representative before The Hague, told

local television. "The court has awarded us an big maritime

area."

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