The Hague: Belize and Guatemala are to face off in The Hague in a dispute over a border dating back more than two centuries, the International Court of Justice said on Wednesday.

The central American neighbours decided as far back as 2008 to take their fight to the UN’s top court, but both countries had to wait until they had held referendums on the issue.

Guatemala claims more than half of Belize’s territory, dating back to when its English-speaking neighbour was a British colony known as British Honduras.

The ICJ said in a statement that it “was seized of a dispute between Guatemala and Belize by way of a special agreement” but did not give any dates for upcoming hearings.

The case could still take several years to conclude.

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 but 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 recognise it as a new country.

Despite their decision more than a decade ago to take the case to the ICJ’s 15-judge panel, Guatemala and Belize both said they would only do so if citizens approved in popular referendums.

Guatemala got the green light in April last year, while Belize’s inhabitants agreed early last month. Belize last week formally told the court of its decision.

Tensions have surged from time to time along the land border, which runs through remote, densely forested territory.

Three years ago Guatemala mobilised 3,000 troops after an incident in which a Guatemalan teen was fatally shot along the border area.