High turnout in New Caledonia’s independence referendum

NOUMEA, New Caledonia (AP) – Voters have turned out in exceptional numbers in a referendum to decide whether the French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia should break free from the European country that claimed it in the mid-19th century.

The territory’s High Commissioner estimated that close to three-quarters of registered voters had cast ballots an hour before polls closed. Results were expected later Sunday.

The independence vote marked a milestone for the archipelago that lies east of Australia and has sun-kissed lagoons as well as a mining industry for nickel, a metal used in electronics manufacturing.

More than 174,000 registered voters were invited to answer the question: “Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?”

A woman prepares her ballot at a polling station in Noumea, New Caledonia, as part of an independence referendum, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Voters in New Caledonia are deciding whether the French territory in the South Pacific should break free from the European country that claimed it in the mid-19th century. (AP Photo/Mathurin Derel)

A woman prepares her ballot at a polling station in Noumea, New Caledonia, as part of an independence referendum, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Voters in New Caledonia are deciding whether the French territory in the South Pacific should break free from the European country that claimed it in the mid-19th century. (AP Photo/Mathurin Derel)

A woman prepares her ballot at a polling station in Noumea, New Caledonia, as part of an independence referendum, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Voters in New Caledonia are deciding whether the French territory in the South Pacific should break free from the European country that claimed it in the mid-19th century. (AP Photo/Mathurin Derel)

A man prepares to cast his vote at a polling station in Noumea, New Caledonia, as part of an independence referendum, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Voters in New Caledonia are deciding whether the French territory in the South Pacific should break free from the European country that claimed it in the mid-19th century. (AP Photo/Mathurin Derel)

A man prepares to cast his vote at a polling station in Noumea, New Caledonia, as part of an independence referendum, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Voters in New Caledonia are deciding whether the French territory in the South Pacific should break free from the European country that claimed it in the mid-19th century. (AP Photo/Mathurin Derel)

A man prepares to cast his vote at a polling station in Noumea, New Caledonia, as part of an independence referendum, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Voters in New Caledonia are deciding whether the French territory in the South Pacific should break free from the European country that claimed it in the mid-19th century. (AP Photo/Mathurin Derel)

A man, right, drapes the flag of New Caledonia on his shoulders as the French flag flies in the background as he and a woman line up to cast their votes at a polling station in Noumea, New Caledonia, as part of an independence referendum, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Voters in New Caledonia are deciding whether the French territory in the South Pacific should break free from the European country that claimed it in the mid-19th century. (AP Photo/Mathurin Derel)

A man, right, drapes the flag of New Caledonia on his shoulders as the French flag flies in the background as he and a woman line up to cast their votes at a polling station in Noumea, New Caledonia, as part of an independence referendum, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Voters in New Caledonia are deciding whether the French territory in the South Pacific should break free from the European country that claimed it in the mid-19th century. (AP Photo/Mathurin Derel)

A man, right, drapes the flag of New Caledonia on his shoulders as the French flag flies in the background as he and a woman line up to cast their votes at a polling station in Noumea, New Caledonia, as part of an independence referendum, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Voters in New Caledonia are deciding whether the French territory in the South Pacific should break free from the European country that claimed it in the mid-19th century. (AP Photo/Mathurin Derel)

Women stand behind curtains at a polling station in Noumea, New Caledonia, as they prepare their votes as part of an independence referendum, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Voters in New Caledonia are deciding whether the French territory in the South Pacific should break free from the European country that claimed it in the mid-19th century. (AP Photo/Mathurin Derel)

Women stand behind curtains at a polling station in Noumea, New Caledonia, as they prepare their votes as part of an independence referendum, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Voters in New Caledonia are deciding whether the French territory in the South Pacific should break free from the European country that claimed it in the mid-19th century. (AP Photo/Mathurin Derel)

Women stand behind curtains at a polling station in Noumea, New Caledonia, as they prepare their votes as part of an independence referendum, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Voters in New Caledonia are deciding whether the French territory in the South Pacific should break free from the European country that claimed it in the mid-19th century. (AP Photo/Mathurin Derel)

An United Nations observer inspects a polling station while residents in Noumea, New Caledonia, vote as part of an independence referendum, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Voters in New Caledonia are deciding whether the French territory in the South Pacific should break free from the European country that claimed it in the mid-19th century. (AP Photo/Mathurin Derel)

An United Nations observer inspects a polling station while residents in Noumea, New Caledonia, vote as part of an independence referendum, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Voters in New Caledonia are deciding whether the French territory in the South Pacific should break free from the European country that claimed it in the mid-19th century. (AP Photo/Mathurin Derel)

An United Nations observer inspects a polling station while residents in Noumea, New Caledonia, vote as part of an independence referendum, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Voters in New Caledonia are deciding whether the French territory in the South Pacific should break free from the European country that claimed it in the mid-19th century. (AP Photo/Mathurin Derel)

People line up at a polling station in Noumea, New Caledonia, as they prepare to cast their votes as part of an independence referendum, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Voters in New Caledonia are deciding whether the French territory in the South Pacific should break free from the European country that claimed it in the mid-19th century. (AP Photo/Mathurin Derel)

People line up at a polling station in Noumea, New Caledonia, as they prepare to cast their votes as part of an independence referendum, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Voters in New Caledonia are deciding whether the French territory in the South Pacific should break free from the European country that claimed it in the mid-19th century. (AP Photo/Mathurin Derel)

People line up at a polling station in Noumea, New Caledonia, as they prepare to cast their votes as part of an independence referendum, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Voters in New Caledonia are deciding whether the French territory in the South Pacific should break free from the European country that claimed it in the mid-19th century. (AP Photo/Mathurin Derel)

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