THE HAGUE, Netherlands - The International Court of Justice ruled Monday that a group of tiny islands in the western Caribbean belongs to Colombia, but also granted Nicaragua control of a large swath of the surrounding sea and seabed that could hold oil reserves.
The decision not to grant Colombia full sovereignty over the waters connecting all the archipelago's islands drew a vehement objection from Colombia's president.
Based on evidence presented to the judges by lawyers for both nations, "Colombia and not Nicaragua has sovereignty over the islands," the court's President Peter Tomka told delegations from both sides.
Despite having its sovereignty claim over the islands rejected, Nicaragua hailed the ruling as a victory.
"Colombia was acting like it was the owner of these islands and like it was owner of all the maritime territory, and the court told them no, that's not how it is," said Nicaragua's representative at the court, Carlos Arguello. "We've been given very important maritime territory."
The ruling gave Nicaragua "incredible potential wealth and future exploitation of fisheries and other resources, such as minerals," he said. "That's what we were seeking, and that's what resulted."
President Juan Manuel Santos told fellow Colombians in a national speech that the court had "committed grave errors" by ignoring the terms of the very treaty it had declared valid and that the decision would hurt the archipelago's fishermen.
The decision effectively cut off four small islands from the rest of the archipelago, and Santos said he could not accept the court's "omissions, errors, excesses and inconsistencies."
While Santos said he recognized that the court's decision is final and legally binding, he said Colombia "emphatically rejects this aspect of the decision" and "we don't rule out any recourse or mechanism that international law gives us to defend our rights"
He announced that he would fly to San Andres immediately.
Undersea oil exploration concessions for the waters surrounding the islands were approved in 2010 by the Colombian government of then-President Alvaro Uribe.
After taking office later that year, Santos introduced legislation to begin the exploration but, after complaints from environmentalists and local politicians, reversed himself and said he would not allow the exploratory drilling.
The archipelago is home to one of the largest barrier reefs in the Americas, the 100-square-mile old Providence reef. The rich marine habitat was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2000.
Nicaragua first went to the world court, the United Nations' highest judicial organ, in 2001 arguing that Colombia had no legal claim to the islands.
The court partially rejected that argument in 2007, saying a 1928 treaty between the two countries established that Colombia owned the English-speaking islands of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina.
The two countries' dispute over the region began in the late 1960s when Nicaragua granted oil exploration concessions for part of the seabed, but so far no drilling has started.