The inhabitants of the Bougainville island in the Pacific, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea, massively opted for independence in a referendum.

Nearly 98 percent of the 181,067 votes cast opted for independence, the referendum committee said on Wednesday. The residents were allowed to vote between November 23 and December 7.

Bougainville is the largest island of the Northern Solomon Islands, but politically belongs to Papua New Guinea.

The non-binding referendum is part of the peace talks between the Bougainville rebel army and the Papua New Guinea state forces. Between 1989 and 1997, a bloody civil war raged on the island, killing 20,000 people of a then-200,000 population.

A provisional peace agreement was concluded in 1998 and in 2001, Bougainville gained the status of an autonomous province.

During the referendum the residents could choose between independence or the preservation of autonomy.