Morocco, Polisario still apart on W Sahara: UN


Morocco and Western Sahara’s independence movement remained divided yesterday over the resource-rich territory’s future after two days of talks but pledged to meet again, a UN mediator said.

“The proposals of the two parties were again presented and discussed. By the end of the meeting, neither party had accepted the proposal of the other as the sole basis of future negotiations,” mediator Christopher Ross said.

Morocco and the Polisario Front nevertheless said they would continue their negotiations “as soon as possible,” Ross told reporters, adding that he would travel to North Africa to consult further with the two sides and other regional players.

Ross, a former US diplomat, said the discussions on the 35-year-old dispute took place in an atmosphere of “serious engagement, frankness, and mutual respect.”

Moroccan and Polisario delegates, however, accused each other in comments to journalists after the talks of failing to budge from long-standing positions.

Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara in 1975 and is now offering it autonomy. But Polisario, which fought a guerrilla war until 1991, demands a referendum with independence as one option.

The disputed territory, which is slightly bigger than Britain, has under half a million people, known as Sahrawis. But it is rich in phosphates used in fertilizer and, potentially, offshore oil and gas.

The two adversaries put forward their latest proposals three years ago but formal negotiations broke down in acrimony after less than a year.

A bid to revive them last year was held up by fresh tensions and this week’s meeting at a conference center in Armonk, north of New York City, was a further attempt to get them back on track.

Little middle ground

Western diplomats say the dispute is hampering efforts to tackle an insurgency linked to al Qaeda that is spreading south through the Sahara Desert. Tension between Morocco and Algeria, which backs Polisario, also has scuttled attempts to form a European Union-style grouping in the area.

Diplomats say they see little middle ground between the two rival plans for Sahara and that both sides fear that any compromise will be seen as capitulation.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri, who led his country’s delegation to this week’s talks, said Polisario’s presentation was “one hundred percent the same proposal that was presented years ago.”

Polisario’s UN representative Ahmed Boukhari, who also took part in the talks, likewise expressed disappointment with the Moroccan stance. “We were expecting that the Moroccans would change their rigid position and discuss honestly our proposals,” he said.

The ill-tempered deadlock that halted the formal negotiations in 2008 led the United Nations to try a different approach last year, with informal talks between just three negotiators from each side.

Ross convened a meeting in Austria last August that focused on confidence-building measures such as visits between Sahrawis in Western Sahara and those living in exile in Algeria.

UN officials say those talks improved the atmosphere and hope formal negotiations can resume. It was unclear when the sides would meet again or when Ross would travel to the region, a trip expected to take in Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania.

No country recognizes Morocco’s rule over Western Sahara, but the UN Security Council is divided. The United States and France have praised Rabat’s proposal but some other countries are sympathetic to Polisario.

Pic: Flag of Morocco