More Talks Ahead in Western Sahara


By Irwin Arieff

January 18, 2006

The latest U.N. envoy charged with ending a decades-long impasse over the fate of Western Sahara told the Security Council on Wednesday that more talks were the only way out of the deadlock over the desert territory.

Dutch diplomat Peter van Walsum said during his first council briefing that all sides should be invited to participate in negotiations including Algeria, which has clashed with Morocco over the territory, according to diplomats present at the closed-door meeting.

The Western Sahara, which is rich in phosphates and fisheries and also may have offshore oil deposits, was seized by Morocco in 1975 immediately after it gained independence from Spain. That move prompted the Algerian-backed Polisario Front independence movement to wage a low-intensity guerrilla war with Morocco that went on until a U.N.-brokered cease-fire in 1991.

A U.N. peacekeeping mission has tried ever since -- so far without success -- to hold a referendum on independence there, and the Security Council regularly adopts resolutions pressing Morocco and the Polisario Front to resolve their differences. Van Walsum, who was named last July as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's new special envoy for the northwest African territory of about 260,000 people, declined to discuss his views with reporters.

In a visit to the region last October, he said he saw the parties' positions as almost irreconcilable but believed there was a desire to break the impasse. Van Walsum succeeded James Baker, the former U.S. Secretary of State, who resigned the post after seven years of unsuccessful efforts to reach agreement on the territory's future status. Baker had proposed giving the territory semi-autonomy for four to five years, after which a referendum would let residents pick independence, semi-autonomy or integration with Morocco. The Polisario endorsed the plan but Morocco said it would never give up sovereignty over the territory.

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