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Morocco, Polisario agree to U.N. call for talks

Sahrawis want referendum offering choice of independence, autonomy or integration

Morocco, Polisario agree to U.N. call for talks

Morocco and Western Sahara's independence movement agreed to U.N.-sponsored talks over the territory after the Security Council asked them on Monday to negotiate an end to their three-decade-old dispute.
The council urged talks without preconditions between Rabat and the Polisario movement in a unanimous resolution that also renewed the mandate of the 220-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in the northwest African territory.
"We want negotiations to start unconditionally and I am happy that all sides have agreed to do that," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters, though he said the parties had accepted the resolution "reluctantly."
The council's move followed the submission to the U.N. by both Morocco and the Algeria-based Polisario of rival plans for the future of the former Spanish colony, annexed by Morocco after Madrid withdrew in 1975.
Morocco wants talks about self-rule for the territory under Moroccan sovereignty, but Polisario has demanded a referendum that would include the option of full independence.
The resolution "calls upon the parties to enter into negotiations without preconditions in good faith ... with a view to achieving a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara."
Western Sahara, larger than Britain but with a population of just 260,000, has lucrative phosphate reserves, rich fishing grounds and potentially oil. Many thousands of its people live in refugee camps across the border in Algeria.
Morocco, which saw a vigorous campaign in Washington rewarded with a U.N. text that seemed warmer to its proposals than to Polisario's, hailed the outcome.
"It is ... a substantive resolution that establishes a decisive turning point in the search for a realistic and realizable solution of the issue," deputy foreign minister Taieb Fassi Fihri said in Rabat.
Polisario officials also claimed victory despite describing the resolution as unbalanced. The text hails Morocco's "serious and credible" efforts to end the long crisis while merely "taking note of" Polisario's proposals.
"The Sahrawi people have thus achieved that their right to self-determination, which ... Morocco and its allies have done everything possible to deny them, has been placed at the heart of any solution," said official Mhamed Khadad.
Each side, however, defines self-determination in its own way. Rabat says letting Sahrawis vote on the result of autonomy talks would cover it. Polisario wants a referendum offering a choice of independence, autonomy or integration into Morocco.
A U.N. cease-fire agreement in 1991 promised a referendum, but it never took place.
It was not immediately clear how or when Ban would seek to convene the talks.
Until now, the Security Council had not called for direct talks. One factor in its shift appeared to be pressure in Morocco's favor from Washington, concerned that the dispute was hampering the fight against Islamic militants in North Africa.
Rabat has also been backed by traditional ally France, whose U.N. Ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sabliere praised Morocco for "creating a new dynamic." Polisario was supported in the Security Council by South Africa, which said it was shelving its concerns over the resolution to get the talks started.


Updated : 2021-08-06 07:00 GMT+08:00