Chile is seeking to deny its landlocked neighbor Bolivia access to the Pacific Ocean by asking the International Court of Justice to throw out a Bolivian demand made before the court.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said late Monday in a televised address that Chile is challenging whether the international court, based in The Hague, has the jurisdiction to hear the case. Bolivia is petitioning the international court to grant it a route to the ocean.
"The main principle is the unyielding defense of our territorial integrity and national interests," Ms. Bachelet said.
Gaining access to ocean ports could help strengthen Bolivia's landlocked economy, while ending the long-running dispute with Chile could boost economic ties between the two nations.
Bolivia in April last year asked the international court to force Chile into talks on returning territory lost in a war that started 135 years ago. A 1904 treaty established the current border with Bolivia, although Bolivia says it was coerced into accepting that pact. Bolivia says it lost about 250 miles of Pacific Ocean coastline and thousands of square miles of land to Chile in the 19th-century War of the Pacific. The two nations have had tense relations for decades as various talks to give Bolivia access to the sea have failed.
Bolivian President Evo Morales said Chile wasn't respecting international law with its challenge to the court's jurisdiction.
"Bolivia rejects the intention of the government of Chile to not respect the competence of the court to resolve this case," Mr. Morales said at a news conference Tuesday in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz.
The dispute has stoked nationalist sentiments.
"The strong anti-Chilean sentiment in Bolivia makes it very risky for any government to formally give up. The best one can hope for is a gradual, silent fading away of the issue, which is unlikely to happen with the current administration," said Julio Carrion, a political scientist and Andean region specialist with the University of Delaware.
Ms. Bachelet's decision was widely applauded in Chile, from an editorial in the influential newspaper El Mercurio to members of the foreign affairs committee in Chile's senate. The response in Bolivia was the opposite, with callers to radio talk shows showing clear support for Bolivia's demand and for President Morales, who has made gaining access to the sea a key plank of his government's policies.
"It is regrettable what the Chilean government is doing," said Sixto Chirinos, a caller to the government-run radio station, Radio Patria Nueva.
Bolivia still maintains a navy, based mainly in Lake Titicaca in the Andes mountains, partially as a symbol of national pride but also as training for its sailors.
Chile's Foreign Affairs Minister Heraldo Muñoz said that with Chile's challenge, Bolivia's demand will be suspended while the international court hears arguments and makes a decision on the legal challenge, which could take up to a year and a half.
Bolivia was inspired in part to bring its case to the international court in The Hague bya January ruling
in which Chile lost a large patch of its territory in the Pacific Ocean to neighboring Peru.
Peru and Chile are still quarreling over who owns a small triangle of land on their border, with both sides claiming ownership.
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