FILE - Workers count ballots after polls closed at a polling station during a referendum on a border dispute with Belize in Guatemala City, Guatemala, April 15, 2018.
FILE - Workers count ballots after polls closed at a polling station during a referendum on a border dispute with Belize in Guatemala City, Guatemala, April 15, 2018.

Belizeans have voted to ask a top United Nations court to decide on neighboring Guatemala's claim that it is the rightful owner of half of Belize's territory, setting the scene for potential resolution of a dispute that has rumbled on for centuries.

In a referendum held Wednesday in Belize, some 55.4 percent of voters opted to send the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, according to preliminary results published by the elections and boundaries department Thursday.

The remaining 44.6 percent of voters in the former British colony in Central America opposed the motion to ask the court.

FILE - A United Nations flag flutters in the wind
FILE - A United Nations flag flutters in the wind next to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, the Netherlands, Aug. 27, 2018.

The result was a victory for the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) of Prime Minister Dean Barrow, who is betting the court will settle the issue once and for all. 

Guatemalans in April 2018 voted by an overwhelming majority to have the ICJ rule on the dispute.

Guatemala recognized the independence of Belize at the beginning of the 1990s. But it never accepted the borders and continues to claim about 11,000 square km (4,250 square miles) of Belize, about half of its territory.

In December 2008, both countries signed a deal that its inhabitants could vote to decide whether the territorial claim, which includes various islands, should be decided by the ICJ. Belize, an English-speaking country of around 375,000 people, became independent in 1981.

Inhabited by Maya before the arrival of Europeans, the territory was claimed by Spain and settled by British buccaneers during the 17th century. Belize later became a British possession surrounded by countries that Spain had colonized.