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Last Updated:  Sunday, 9 March, 2003, 20:39 GMT
Maltese back EU entry
Malta has voted in a referendum to join the European Union.

There were the scenes of jubilation among the "yes" camp
The final results showed that 53.6% supported the accession, while 46.4% voted against.

Earlier, the pro-EU Maltese Prime Minister, Eddie Fenech Adami claimed victory, saying that it was "very clear that the Maltese have said yes to joining the EU".

But the opposition Labour leader, Alfred Sant, said that less than half of the total electorate had voted "Yes" in the non-binding referendum, and challenged the prime minister to call early elections.

The result of the vote could have repercussions well beyond Malta's borders - the island nation is the first of nine countries holding referendums on joining the EU next year.

The BBC's Claire Marshall in Malta says that although the vote was close, Brussels will be breathing a sigh of relief at the result.

Street parties

There was a huge turnout - electoral officials said 91% of the nearly 300,000-strong electorate had voted.

8 March - Malta
23 March - Slovenia
30 March - Cyprus (only if deal reached between Greek and Turkish Cypriots)
12 April - Hungary
16-17 May - Slovakia
10-11 May - Lithuania
8 June - Poland
15-16 June - Czech Republic
14 September - Estonia
20 September - Latvia

Our correspondent said that members of the governing Nationalist Party hugged each other as the early results came through.

The party's supporters began street parties in the capital, Valetta, painting their faces with blue with yellow stars and waiving hundreds of EU flags.

"Thank God for this, we can have a future now, coming hand in hand with all these great countries will be amazing for us," said one of the "Yes" campaigners.

The government had argued that a "Yes" vote was vital for the island's economy and international credibility.

'No' camp hopes

But the Labour Party argued that belonging to the EU would cost Malta jobs and leave the island overshadowed by the big EU nations.

Eurosceptics remain defiant, hoping for revenge in the general elections

Mr Sant said he would not concede defeat, adding that because about 20,000 voters had not taken part, the 53% Yes vote represented less than half of the eligible electorate.

He said the final answer should come from early general elections, which the government is widely expected to call in a few weeks time.

"We will win the next leg," Mr Sant said, referring to the fact that the referendum will have to be validated by the elections.

Our correspondent says that after centuries of control by foreign powers, many Maltese feel that Europe will take away their hard-earned independence, finally gained in 1964.

The BBC's Janet Barrie
"A clear victory"

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