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Argentina, Uruguay pulp mill row far from over

BUENOS AIRES, April 22 (UPI) -- The leaders of Argentina and Uruguay will meet next week to try to achieve a compromise after a World Court ruling left both sides claiming little victories -- without a final resolution of the dispute over a border pulp mill.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner will host Uruguay President Jose Mujica Wednesday for talks in search of a compromise -- a meeting that critics say could have been arranged before the dispute went to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

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The court ruling reprimanded Uruguay, saying it didn't follow proper procedures to consult Argentina before erecting a eucalyptus pulp mill on its side of the Uruguay river. But the court rejected Argentine demands for dismantling and relocating of the mill.

Tens of thousands of dollars were sunk in legal fees but the mill stays, as do Argentine protesters on a bridge linking the two countries, blocking access for travelers, many of them families with relatives on both sides of the border.

The mill controversy was seen by Argentine leaders as a just cause that won Buenos Aires populist backing and drew government supporters into the fray, with hundreds of regular pickets taking turns to block the San Martin bridge.

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The pickets kept up the campaign for three years but last year's election of Mujica, a former left-wing guerrilla fighter, and his conciliatory approach to the problem diluted the belligerent campaign that had won Argentina's government support and fanned anti-Uruguay sentiment.

Argentina went ahead with the International Court hearing, despite signs that Mujica's inauguration in March this year as president had turned international opinion in Uruguay's favor. Independent assessments contradicting Argentina's claim that the mill was polluting the river also led to critics calling on Fernandez to drop the case and opt instead for direct talks.

After the ruling Fernandez scaled down the rhetoric, vowing to resolve the dispute through negotiations. Asked about the court judgment Mujica told the media, "The only words are silence and there's much work ahead."

Although the court at The Hague ruled Uruguay's past government didn't respect provisions of a bilateral Uruguay River Treaty, requiring it to consult with Argentina, the judges dismissed Argentine claims that the mill operations contaminated the river. They also ruled out removal of the plant, a key Argentine demand backed by the pickets.

Analysts said the ruling meant Argentina will need to try out a series of face-saving gestures and work with Mujica to persuade the protesters to end their blockade and leave the bridge.

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Fernandez insists the two countries would still need to work together to establish a strong monitoring and control mechanism to ensure that the mill doesn't contaminate the river waters.

Uruguay government officials said they hoped the episode could be put aside and closer collaboration with Argentina could resume.

This week Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana took the unusual step of urging the activists to end their blockade of the bridge in view of the International Court of

Justice ruling.

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