By Dave Graham and Daniel Ramos
MEXICO CITY/LA PAZ (Reuters) - Mexico on Thursday turned to the International Court of Justice to ensure its diplomatic facilities were respected in Bolivia as it ramped up pressure on the South American country's interim government to back down in an increasingly fractious spat.
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard told a regular news briefing that his government was appealing to the court, based in The Hague, to mediate in the dispute, which centers on Mexico's decision to grant asylum to nine people at its embassy.
Since Monday, Mexico has accused the new conservative Bolivian government of heightening the police presence outside the embassy in La Paz and intimidating its staff.
Bolivia's foreign minister, Karen Longaric, said Mexico's appeal to the court was a "legal fallacy" and should be withdrawn.
Headed by interim President Jeanine Añez, a former senator, the Bolivian government took power last month when long-serving leftist president Evo Morales resigned after a disputed election and took asylum in Mexico, clouding diplomatic relations.
Ebrard said that 11 days after Mexico gave asylum to the nine people and sought safe conduct passes for them, Bolivia told Mexican authorities it had issued arrest warrants for four of them. None have been granted the passes, he added.
Ebrard said he hoped the court would uphold Mexico's right to give asylum and have its premises respected. The "consensus of the international community" was on Mexico's side, he said.
Morales stepped down under pressure from Bolivia's armed forces after a presidential election that the Organization of American States (OAS) said was rigged in his favor.
He quickly accepted an offer of political asylum from Mexico, putting a strain on relations between Mexico the government headed by Añez, an opponent of Morales.
According to the Bolivian government, a former senior aide to Morales, Juan Ramon Quintana, is among the nine who have taken asylum in the Mexican embassy.
Morales left Mexico this month and is now in Argentina.
Ebrard likened the attitude taken by what he called the "de facto" Bolivian government to military-led regimes in power in Latin America during the 1970s.
Standing alongside Ebrard, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist ally of Morales, said he hoped no attempt would be made to force entry into the embassy.
"Not even (former Chilean dictator Augusto) Pinochet did that," Lopez Obrador said.
Yerko Nuñez, minister for the Bolivian presidency, said his government wanted to protect the Mexican embassy because there are "supposedly groups who want to come down and take it."
"But we also want everyone who committed acts of terrorism, sedition and sought to organize conflict, to face justice," he told reporters, pointing to the arrest orders put out.
"And there won't be safe passage for those who broke the rules and caused division among Bolivians."
(Reporting by Dave Graham, Daniel Ramos and Adriana Barrera; Additional reporting by Aislinn Laing in Santiago; editing by John Stonestreet and Steve Orlofsky)