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Dispute Over Western Sahara Continues

The United Nations has extended its mission in Western Sahara after years of failing to achieve a breakthrough in the long-standing dispute over the strip of land that lies between Morocco and Mauritania.

A small wind-blown desert territory, with little water and virtually no arable land, Western Sahara is at the center of the longest territorial dispute in Africa. Since Spanish colonizers withdrew more than 30 years ago, Morocco and an Algerian-backed independence movement have fought over the land.

UN reiterates call for negotiations

The U.N. Mission in Western Sahara was due to end Friday without agreement between the two sides.

Rabat has proposed an autonomous territory under Moroccan rule. The Western Saharan independence group Polisario wants its own country.

The United Nations is urging both sides to continue negotiations.

"The secretary-general recommends the Security Council reiterate its call upon the parties to negotiate in good faith without preconditions and to show political will to enter into substantive discussions and ensure the success of the negotiations," says Farhan Haq, a deputy U.N. spokesman.

The U.N. mission began in 1991 to monitor a cease-fire that marked the end of a guerilla war between Moroccan forces and Polisario fighters. But since then, negotiations have come and gone without resolution.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says change will only come with "realism and a spirit of compromise from both parties".

Brahim Ghaly, who represents Polisario in Algeria, says the group welcomes the recommendation that both sides engage in informal negotiations before the next round of talks, but he adds that the United Nations should take into consideration human rights issues.

Almost half of the indigenous population of Western Sahara lives in refugee camps across the Algerian border, near the town of Tindouf.

Issue is key to regional security, development

U.S. foreign policy analysts say the Western Sahara is a major obstacle to regional security and economic development.

"This is the rock on the road that stands in the way of greater cooperation among North African countries. Cooperation among the North African countries is mutually beneficial for all of the countries in the region which are suffering right now from lack of cooperation, particularly economic ... So it is crucial to get this rock off the road," said William Zartman, a Middle East and Africa specialist at the Johns Hopkins Conflict Management Program.

Zartman says if North African countries better cooperated with the United States and Europe there would be a billion-dolllar increase in trade throughout the region.

He says Washington should push for a compromise in the form of an autonomous Western Sahara state within Morocco.

"The question is can we bring the two sides together on a compromise solution. Not Morocco's total integration. Not Algeria's independence for the region. But rather a compromise solution which can meet the demands, the needs and the interests of both sides," he said.

But Polisario has always rejected the offer of an autonomous state. The group wants a referendum to determine the future status of the territory, that includes the option of independence.

The United Nations mission in Western Sahara was originally charged with organizing that referendum, but it has yet to happen.