Global Policy Forum

Morocco, Polisario Front Agree to Hold Talks

Associated Press
April 30, 2007

The two sides fighting for control of Western Sahara agreed Monday to hold talks for the first time in 30 years on the sparsely populated territory in North Africa, which the U.S. says is critical to preventing the spread of terrorism. The U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for Morocco and the Polisario Front independence group to enter into negotiations over the phosphate-rich region which Morocco annexed in 1975, sparking a 16-year war with Polisario guerrillas. Both Morocco and the Polisario Front agreed to discuss the future of the region, although Ahmed Boukhari, the Polisario representative to the U.N., said the talks were doomed if the Moroccan government does not agree to a referendum on independence. "We are ready to engage now but for something credible," he told reporters after the vote. "Morocco wanted ... to force the hand of the Security Council to endorse only their plan which says Western Sahara belongs to Morocco without a referendum." Morocco's U.N. Ambassador El Mostafa Sahel said "there will be appropriate answers to the question of self-determination," but he did not mention the possibility of a referendum, which Morocco has steadfastly opposed.

Morocco presented an autonomy plan to the U.N. earlier this month that would permit the election of a parliament and create a regional government in Western Sahara to oversee day-to-day affairs. But sovereignty over the territory would remain with Rabat. The Polisario Front, which is backed by neighboring Algeria, also presented a plan this month that reiterated its demand for a referendum offering the Saharawi people who live in the region a choice of autonomy or independence from Morocco.

The U.S. believes resolving the conflict could be a catalyst for improved counterterrorism cooperation in North Africa and for a free trade agreement that would promote economic growth and reduce the appeal of terrorist groups to unemployed youth. In a letter Thursday, 180 members of the U.S. House of Representatives urged President George W. Bush to support Morocco's autonomy plan, saying the U.S. has a major national security interest in the resolving the dispute. "With al-Qaida and other terrorist groups expanding their presence into North Africa, we are concerned that the failure to resolve this conflict of more than 30 years poses a danger to U.S. and regional security," the letter said. Forty-five House members signed an opposing letter backing a referendum as called for by the Polisario. Concerns over the spread of terrorism in North Africa were heightened earlier this month after suicide bombers launched attacks in Morocco's largest city, Casablanca, and the Algerian capital of Algiers, killing dozens. Officials blamed al-Qaida. Boukhari, the Polisario representative to the U.N., said there are no known terror groups operating in Western Sahara, nor did he believe the territory could become a launching pad for attacks because it is largely desert and lacks infrastructure. "The threat of terrorism in Morocco, in North Africa will be there for other reasons. It is not linked to Western Sahara," he said. But analysts say resolving the Western Sahara dispute could be vital to countering al-Qaida's rise in the area.

"The Western Sahara conflict is the number one impediment standing in the way of regional cooperation, especially between Morocco and Algeria. A peaceful negotiated solution would pave the way for more cooperation on security and economics," said Jacob Mundy, a Western Sahara expert at the Middle East Research and Information Project in Washington, D.C. Morocco and Mauritania split Western Sahara after its Spanish colonizers left the territory in 1975. Full-scale war broke out, and Morocco took over the whole of the territory after Mauritania pulled out in 1979. The fighting, which pitted 15,000 Polisario guerrillas against Morocco's U.S.-equipped army, ended in 1991 with a U.N.-negotiated cease-fire that called for a referendum on the region's future. But after 15 years and the expenditure of more than $600 million (€441 million), the U.N. has been unable to resolve the standoff or hold the referendum. Former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker also tried for years to broker a settlement on behalf of the U.N., including an eventual referendum on independence, autonomy or integration with Morocco. That effort failed and he gave up in 2004. The mandate of the 225-member U.N. mission in Western Sahara, which expired Monday, was renewed by the Security Council for another six months.

Mohamed Mayara, a human rights activist in Western Sahara, said he was disappointed the U.N. resolution did not mention allegations of abuse in the region. His group, the Saharawi Association of Human Rights Victims, and others say Moroccan security forces regularly detain and torture Saharawis who express pro-independence sentiments. "Most of the victims of human rights violations committed by the Moroccan state are women, children and old men," he said by telephone from the region's capital, Laayoune. "The U.N. needs to broaden (its mission's) authority to include human rights." Last year, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights documented numerous abuses against the Saharawi in a scathing confidential report. Activists told the U.N. that Moroccan police routinely use force to break up pro-independence demonstrations and harass groups pushing for a referendum on self-determination, the report said. Morocco's government-run news agency called the report a "propaganda bulletin" filled with "bald-faced lies."

More Information on the Security Council
More Information on the Western Sahara


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