By Jose Sanchez
BELIZE CITY (Reuters) - Belizeans on Wednesday began voting in a referendum on whether a top U.N. court should rule on neighbouring Guatemala's claim that it is the rightful owner of half of Belize's territory, a dispute dating back to Spanish and British colonial rule.
Guatemalans in April 2018 overwhelmingly voted to ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague to make a decision on the dispute with Belize.
The referendum in the small Central American country is highly politicized, but could help end a border conflict that originated during the colonial era.
Belize's ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) has argued in favour of seeking the court's intervention in hopes of settling the matter once and for all, betting the court will uphold the current border.
Critics of the plan, which include the opposition People's United Party (PUP), are pushing voters to reject arbitration by the court due to the risk that Belize could lose a large chunk of disputed territory from its centre to the south.
Guatemala recognised the independence of Belize at the beginning of the 1990s. But it never accepted the borders and continues to claim about 11,000 square kilometres, about half the territory of the former British colony.
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.
Some 147,000 Belize residents have registered to take part in Wednesday's referendum.
Results of the vote are expected by early Thursday.
(Reporting by Jose Sanchez; Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by David Gregorio)