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Russia dismisses Georgian claims of ethnic cleansing, asks UN court to throw out case

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Russia accused Georgia on Monday of manufacturing allegations of ethnic cleansing in Georgia's breakaway provinces after it failed to regain control of the areas in an abortive five-day war.

Georgia has complained to the International Court of Justice of the murder of thousands of ethnic Georgians and alleged displacement of some 300,000 people in a two-decade campaign of discrimination by Russian authorities and separatist militias in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russian, however, portrayed itself as a mediator and peacemaker, and said Georgia had never complained of ethnic discrimination until it lost the 2008 war. The war broke out just before midnight Aug. 7, 2008, and ended in a European Union-brokered cease-fire Aug. 12. Georgia filed its complaint to the Hague-based court - the U.N.'s highest judicial body - on the same day.

Two years ago, the court issued an emergency ruling ordering both countries to protect civilians from ethnic violence. But it delayed any action on Georgia's claim that Russia had systematically persecuted ethnic Georgians since the early 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The court is the U.N.'s judicial forum for settling disputes among member states.

On Monday, Russia argued that the court had no jurisdiction to hear Georgia's case because Georgia had not previously claimed that a dispute existed.

Georgia was to argue its case on jurisdiction Tuesday. But in a written submission made partially available Monday it said it has evidence of a long-standing dispute that falls within the court's purview.

This week's hearings only dealt with whether the court should hear the case at all. If the judges agree the tribunal has jurisdiction, it will hold separate hearings later on the merits of the complaint. The court's decisions are binding, but it has no means of forcing compliance.

Georgia's complaint was based on alleged violations of a 1965 treaty banning all forms of racial discrimination. But Russia said Georgia had never raised claims of discrimination during normal diplomatic contacts until after its forces were crushed in the 2008 war in South Ossetia.

"The application (to the court) was launched only when it became clear that Georgia's military operation had failed," said Kirill Gevorgian, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's legal department.

The tribunal, also known as the World Court, is a court of last resort, the Russian legal team argued. Lawyers said Georgia had not previously sought to resolve its claims through negotiations or through a commission established by the anti-discrimination treaty.

"This is a dispute that Georgia never communicated to Russia until the very date of its application," said Roman Kolodkin, Russia's ambassador to the Netherlands. He said Georgia's appeal to the court was "a continuation of war by other means."

Georgia, in its written argument, said Russia's position was groundless.

"Russia has always denied its responsibility for these acts of ethnic discrimination. But that only goes to confirm the existence of a dispute between the parties as to whether Russia has engaged in discriminatory conduct," the document said. "Georgia says 'Yes.' Russia says 'No.' A dispute exists."

After the war, Russia maintained a powerful force in the two breakaway provinces. Russia's recognition of their claims of independence from Georgia remains a major source of tension between Russia and the United States. The U.S. has had close relations with Georgia since the 2003 "rose revolution" led by President Mikhail Saakashvili, even though Washington was unhappy with Georgia's military operation.

Earlier, the court swore in new judges from the United States and China to the 15-member bench.

Joan Donoghue was the top legal adviser on international law and human rights law to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, including issues related to interrogations at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Donoghue has been involved in several cases at the World Court.

Xue Hanqin was China's ambassador to ASEAN, the grouping of Southeast Asian nations, and previously was ambassador to the Netherlands.

It is the first time the court has two women judges at the same time.