Guatemala and Belize signed an accord agreeing to let their territorial dispute, which is nearly two centuries old, be settled in the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Foreign Ministers Roger Rodas of Guatemala and Wilfred Elrington of Belize signed the pact at the Washington headquarters of the Organization of American States.

The signing of the accord comes after the recommendation made last year by OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza that the parties turn to the United Nation's top judicial entity after the negotiations the two countries restarted in 2005 failed to bear fruit.

The OAS has monitored the dialogue process between the two countries since 2000, when they began making efforts to work out the controversy, which dates from 1821 when Guatemala gained independence from Spain and Britain was occupying what is today Belize.

Guatemala continues to press its claim to some 12,700 square kilometers of Belizean soil, which amounts to more than half of the former British colony's territory.

That expanse represents a logging concession granted to Britain by the Spanish Crown in the 17th century.

Insulza emphasized that the two countries took "a very important step for the solution of the problem" by acknowledging that the dispute "is essentially of a juridical character" and agreeing to take the case to the ICJ.

Even so, voters in the two neighboring countries must still ratify the accord in referendums.

Rodas expressed Guatemala's desire to "definitively" end the dispute, adding that the ICJ decision will allow all concerned to "be able to define, among other things, the Guatemalan territory in dispute and establish the borders." The Guatemalan foreign minister also emphasized that his country is ready to move forward with cooperation and integration in all areas with Belize, as well as in strengthening understanding between the two countries.

Belize says it hopes the referendum as part of the efforts to end the long running border dispute with Guatemala would be held "very soon" and reiterated a need for a peaceful solution to the issue.

Last year the Belize government said Guatemala appeared to be having difficulty with proceeding with the referendum in both countries on Oct 6 this year and that the country wanted to go straight to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

It also did not want to put an end to the existing Special Agreement between them.