Sahara talks inch forward but no progress on status

Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, was annexed by Morocco in 1975.

Last Updated: Jan 24, 2011, 12:48 PM IST

New York: Talks between Morocco and Western Sahara`s independence movement inched forward on Sunday but there was no progress over the basic issue of the disputed territory`s future status, a UN mediator said.

Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony in northwest Africa, was annexed by Morocco in 1975, sparking a rebellion by the Polisario Front. The United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991, but no political settlement has followed.

"Each party continues to reject the proposal of the other as a sole basis for future negotiations," mediator Christopher Ross said after two days of talks near New York City between Moroccan and Polisario officials -- their ninth round since 2007. Ross made a similar statement after previous rounds.

Rabat is offering self-rule to Sahara as part of Morocco, but Polisario demands a referendum with full independence as one option. Neither side has been willing to back down.

Western Sahara, a thinly populated desert tract about the size of Britain, has rich fishing grounds off its coast and reserves of phosphates, used to make fertilizer and detergent. It may also have oil and gas reserves.

Many Saharans live in refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria, which supports Polisario. Western countries complain that the Sahara dispute is hindering cooperation against Islamic fundamentalist groups in North Africa.

Ross said that despite the deadlock, the two sides had discussed "innovative approaches to build a new dynamic ... on the basis of regular meetings”.

He said "both parties presented and discussed in a preliminary manner concrete ideas that will be developed at the next round," which diplomats said would be held in early March. No venue was announced, but most of the previous rounds have been held at a private estate in Manhasset on Long Island.

Diplomats close to the talks, led for Morocco by Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri and for Polisario by Khatri Addu, said the ideas included a Moroccan proposal for discussion of Sahara`s natural resources and a Polisario call to discuss human rights.

Morocco is keen to rebut Polisario charges that it is exploiting Sahara`s resources for itself. Polisario has pushed, so far unsuccessfully, for the mandate of UN peacekeepers in the territory to be expanded to investigate what it says are Moroccan human rights abuses against Saharans.

Other suggestions included an exchange of political delegations between the two sides, the diplomats said, adding that the March meeting would seek to determine which ideas should actually be discussed.

Ross said the two sides would also meet officials of the UN refugee agency in Geneva next month to seek to arrange family visits by road between Saharans in the territory`s main city Laayoune and the camps in Algeria.

Bureau Report