Georgia and Russia Face Off in UN Court

APRussian Ambassador to the Netherlands, Kirill Gevorgyan, center, attending the court hearing Monday in The Hague.
THE HAGUE Georgia accused Russia on Monday of a "campaign of harassment and persecution" in the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and urged the International Court of Justice to intervene to halt killings and forced expulsions.

The case opened a new legal front in the battle between Georgia and Russia for control of the regions and began as French President Nicolas Sarkozy led an EU delegation to Moscow for talks aimed at easing the standoff.

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 accuses 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. Before the war, Russia had given passports to many of the residents of South Ossetia, even though it is part of Georgia.

Outside the courtroom, Russia's ambassador to the Netherlands, Kirill Gevorgyan, dismissed Georgia's case as "nonsense."

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

Russian leaders have criticized the West for failing to condemn what they called Georgian "aggression" and indiscriminate killing of civilians and threatened to prosecute Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as a war criminal.

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.