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UN Urges Morocco, Polisario to Open Western Sahara Talks


The U.N. Security Council is urging Morocco and the separatist Polisario Front to open unconditional talks on the disputed Western Sahara region. Correspondent Peter Heinlein at the U.N. reports a Council resolution underlines the complexity of a territorial feud that has bedeviled northwestern Africa for more than three decades.

The measure adopted unanimously Monday was co-sponsored by Security Council powers France, Britain, Russia and the United States, along with Western Sahara's former colonial ruler, Spain. It calls for direct talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front under the supervision of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The resolution acknowledges a Moroccan plan unveiled April 11 that proposes an autonomy referendum in Western Sahara. But it also notes a rival plan put forward by the Polisario movement. The Polisario plan demands that any vote also include the option of independence.

U.N. special envoy to Western Sahara Peter van Walsum recently called the two plans irreconcilable. But he said he was encouraged that both parties had agreed to hold face-to-face talks.

Washington's U.N. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Monday he was happy at the agreement to talk. But he acknowledged that bringing the two sides together had required strong political pressure.

"The purpose is to get unconditional discussions started under U.N. management, and the parties have accepted it reluctantly, but the recent Moroccan proposal is serious, is credible, but we do take note of the other proposals, too," said Zalmay Khalilzad.

Morocco's U.N. Ambassador El Mostafa Sahel welcomed the Security Council action. He called it an endorsement of the latest Moroccan referendum proposal.

"These efforts are described as serious and credible," said El Mostafa Sahel. "The Security Council recognizes therefore the relevance of the Moroccan initiative. As consolidated formally, with wide international support, clearly expressed in favor of Moroccan autonomy initiative. As such, the Security Council approved the initiative taken by Morocco for a negotiated political settlement."

The Polisario's U.N. representative Ahmed Bujari was more guarded in his acceptance of the Security Council vote. He expressed satisfaction with the Council's even-handed approach to the sensitive Western Sahara question. But he flatly rejected Morocco's offer of an autonomy referendum, calling instead for a vote that includes the option of independence.

"Maybe the proposal of autonomy presented by Morocco is good for some province of Morocco, Western Sahara is not a province of Morocco, it is our territory under foreign and colonial occupation," noted Ahmed Bujari. "And there is no way out except organizing a free and fair referendum on self-determination."

The Security Council resolution calls on Secretary-General Ban to report back on the progress of the talks by the end of June. There was no immediate word on when he would call the two sides together.

Morocco annexed the Western Sahara region when Spain withdrew in the mid 1970s. The annexation triggered a war with the Algerian-backed Polisario. A United Nations brokered ceasefire in 1991 included a call for a referendum, but no vote was held.

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