THE HAGUE (Reuters) -Judges at the World Court on Friday ordered Venezuela to refrain from taking any action that would alter the situation on the ground in a potentially oil-rich territory that is the subject of a border dispute with Guyana, which controls the area.
The court did not expressly forbid Venezuela to hold a planned Dec. 3 referendum over its rights to the region around the Esequibo river, the subject of the long-running border dispute, as Guyana has requested.
However, judges at the International Court of Justice - as the World Court is formally known - made clear that any concrete action to alter the status quo should be stopped.
"The court observes that the situation that currently prevails in the territory in dispute is that Guyana administers and exercises control over that area," presiding judge Joan Donoghue said.
"Venezuela must refrain from taking any action which would modify that situation," she added.
Venezuela did not immediately react to the court's ruling.
Venezuelans will vote on Sunday in a five-question referendum backed by the government of President Nicolas Maduro, which analysts say is likely to be approved.
The referendum asks Venezuelans, among other things, if they agree to a plan to incorporate the region and create a state called Guayana Esequiba.
Guyana's President Irfaan Ali hailed the court's ruling in a statement.
"As the court has made clear, Venezuela is prohibited from annexing or trespassing upon Guyanese territory or taking any other actions – regardless of the outcome of its referendum on December 3 – that would alter the status quo in which Guyana administers and controls the Esequibo region," the statement said.
The ICJ said in April it had jurisdiction, though a final ruling could be years away. Venezuela has maintained the issue should be resolved by the two countries.
The 160,000 square km (61,776 square mile) territory around the Esequibo river is mostly impenetrable jungle.
Venezuela reactivated its claim over the area in recent years after the discovery of offshore oil and gas. Last month Guyana announced another significant discovery in offshore areas.
(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg and Bart Meijer, additional reporting by Kiana Wilburg in Georgetown; Editing by Alex Richardson)