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article imageGuatemala votes on international court handling Belize border dispute

By Edgar CALDERON (AFP)     Apr 15, 2018 in World

Guatemalans voted overwhelmingly Sunday to send a centuries-old border dispute with neighboring Belize to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for final resolution, according to preliminary referendum results.

A total of 95.89 percent voted "yes," with votes from over 92 percent of polling stations accounted for, said Gustavo Castillo of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

Polls closed at 6:00 pm (0000 GMT) after 11 hours of voting, which took place "without reports of security incidents," tribunal president Maria Eugenia Mijangos said.

But despite 7.5 million Guatemalans being summoned to the ballot box, the vote was marked by low turnout.

The border disagreement, whose roots go back two centuries, has seen tensions spike from time to time. Two years ago Guatemala mobilized 3,000 troops along the densely forested unmarked border zone after an incident in which a Guatemalan teenager was fatally shot.

A Belize border patrol had opened fire after being shot at, but an investigation by the Organization of American States found it not responsible for the death.

The two nations agreed in 2008 to send the dispute to The Hague-based ICJ, if the people of both countries approved.

Observers from 25 countries were on hand to monitor the polling.

Belize has not yet fixed a date for its referendum on the issue, although officials say it could take place next year.

The Guatemalan plebiscite asked voters to respond "yes" or "no" as to whether any legal claims by Guatemala against Belize relating to its territories "should be submitted to the International Court of Justice for final settlement" and boundary determination.

Mijangos told reporters that voter apathy was a big risk. Efforts by President Jimmy Morales to boost turnout have foundered on the rocks of his low popularity.

- 'Very important issue' -

On Sunday, Mijangos said: "We are calling on all Guatemalans, especially the youth making up the majority of the electorate, to participate, to go to polling stations to put in their vote on this very important issue which has taken so many years to find a solution to."

Morales said as he voted that the two countries had "very good bilateral relations" and he hoped the dispute could be resolved.

The border between Guatemala and Belize  from the municipality of Melchor de Mencos  on the Guatemal...
The border between Guatemala and Belize, from the municipality of Melchor de Mencos, on the Guatemalan side

Guatemala has made claims over more than half of Belize's territory, dating back to when its English-speaking neighbor was a British colony known as British Honduras.

The border issue goes back to 1783 when Spain -- the former colonial power over what is now Guatemala -- gave Britain the right to occupy the territory that became Belize and exploit its timber in exchange for combating piracy. A century later, it became a British colony.

In 1964 British Honduras won the right to self-government and in 1973 renamed itself Belize.

Independence came in 1981, though a British military presence remained until the mid-1990s because Guatemala refused for a decade to recognize it as a new country.

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