NOUMÉA, New Caledonia (November 8, 1998 - AFP)---More than 26 percent of New Caledonia's voters had cast ballots by midday Sunday in a referendum to determine the status of the French Pacific territory over the next 20 years, the High Commission said.

Turnout ranged from 28 percent in South province, where more than half the population lives, to almost 52 percent in Grand Nouméa, where most voters are of European origin.

The turnout by midday was 28 percent in North province but only 12 percent in the Islands province, where the population is almost exclusively Kanak.

The 172 polling booths opened for business at 8:00 a.m. (2100 GMT Saturday) and are due to close at 6:00 p.m. (0700 GMT Sunday), with results expected three hours later.

The 106,706 registered voters are being asked to vote "yes" or "no" for the May 1998 Nouméa Accord under which New Caledonia will gain progressive autonomy from Paris including an assembly and local government.

If, as expected, the territory's voters opt to accept the new accord, they will be asked to vote in a new referendum in 15 or 20 years' time to determine whether they want full independence.

As in previous votes the territory's high commissioner, Dominique Bur, has banned the sale or transport of all alcoholic beverages on Sunday, except in restaurants.

Since 1958 New Caledonia has had eight different statutes within the French republic, the present one being the fruit of the 1988 Matignon Accord which ended several years of separatist violence.

The leading pro-independence party, the FLNKS (Kanak National Socialist Liberation Front), and the anti-independence RPCR (Rally for Caledonia in the Republic) both signed the Nouméa Accord with French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and both campaigned for a "yes" vote.

The accord was brokered in two years of painstaking negotiations by French officials and is aimed at preventing a repeat of the 1980s conflict between the Kanak and European populations.

Around 45 percent of the population are native Melanesians and a third of European descent. Most of the others are from the tiny French Pacific territory of Wallis and Futuna, and Asian nations such as Indonesia and Vietnam.

The separatist groups are dominated by Melanesians, who say they have been discriminated against in key appointments and do not get a fair share of the wealth generated by the huge nickel reserves.

Leader of both main parties cast their ballots during an incident-free morning. Roch Wamytan, president of FLNKS, voted at Mont-Dore in a suburb of Nouméa while Jacques Lafleur, head of the RPCR, cast his ballot at a school in the south of the capital.

Soon afterwards at the same school, 103-year-old Marie-Louies Lhuillier also did her electoral duty in front of television and photographers.

Michael J Field Agence France-Presse Auckland, New Zealand TEL: (64 21) 688-438 FAX: (64 21) 694-035 E-Mail: WWW:

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