The tiny strategic western Pacific island chain of Palau has backed association with the United States but ruled out placing nuclear weapons in its territory, early referendum results showed.

With most votes in Thursday's poll counted, officials said about 1,500 people backed a compact of free association with the United States, a majority of about 300 in favor although absentee votes and results of one district were still out.

Palau is a member of the U.S.-administered United Nations Trust Territory of Pacific Islands. The United States has signed compacts of free association with three of the four island groups.

The agreements must now be put to plebiscites, and Palau is the first to vote. The compact would give Palau control of most affairs except defense, while Washington would extend economic aid of between $1 billion and $2 billion over 50 years.

But the rejection of the arms question could create problems between the islands and Washington. Results so far showed 49.3 percent of voters favored allowing nuclear, chemical, gas or biological weapons in the territory. The measure needed a 75 percent vote to be approved.

"The people of Palau like free association, but they don't like the clause which is critical to a U.S. military undertaking," said a U.S. official who asked not to be identified. If the nuclear weapons' question fails, "the compact won't be implemented," he said.