Prospects for ending the long-running conflict in Western Sahara were discussed at a hearing at the U.S. Congress Thursday. Witnesses discussed a proposal by Moroccan King Mohammed VI to grant autonomy to the region under Moroccan sovereignty, and responses by the Algerian-backed Polisario Front.

Negotiations aimed at ending the decades-long conflict have been difficult and complex, and based on testimony to the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa, success appears faraway.

The Algerian-backed Polisario Front has demanded independence since Spain's withdrawal from its former colony in 1976. Neighboring Mauritania relinquished claims in 1979, but Morocco maintained its hold.

A 2003 proposal by former U.N. Special Envoy James Baker for a five year period of autonomy followed by a referendum, based on unsuccessful efforts in the 1990's, was accepted by the Polisario, but rejected by Morocco.

In October, the United Nations renewed its peacekeeping mandate. However, the Security Council has been unwilling to impose a solution or consider sanctions aimed at Morocco, Polisario or Algeria.

Erik Jensen, special representative to the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, warns that frustration over the lack of progress could lead to disastrous consequences, and says the only way out is a negotiated settlement. "I am convinced that in the interests of all, a negotiated political settlement involving a genuine degree of regional autonomy for Western Sahara, which would be subject to referendum, offers the most credible solution," he said.

Mr. Jensen says the proposal by Moroccan King Mohammed VI for autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty could provide an opening, but adds only the United States can exert the influence needed to push things ahead. Polisario has rejected the proposal.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Gordon Gray, says failure to resolve the dispute could have wide-ranging repercussions. "Unresolved, this dispute significantly impedes regional integration and leaves the Saharawi people with a bleak and uncertain future. If the situation were to deteriorate it could bring new suffering and hardship, threaten political and economic reform trends in Algeria and Morocco, and pose serious risks for the stability of the Maghreb, with implications for southern Europe," he said.

The United States, says Mr. Gray, remains committed to U.N. efforts towards a durable solution, but adds there has been little progress, and urges Morocco and Algeria to work harder to overcome differences. "It is clear to us that a resolution of the Western Sahara dispute can only be approached in the context of much improved Moroccan-Algerian relations. It is for this reason that we are focusing our efforts on improving the overall atmosphere in the region by encouraging Moroccan-Algerian rapprochement. Morocco, in turn, must also concentrate on opening a dialogue with the Polisario," he said.

There have been ongoing allegations of human rights abuses by Morocco and Polisario.

Congressman Donald Payne is critical of what he calls a crackdown by Morocco. "I have serious concerns about the increasing repression and violence being carried out against the Saharawi people by the Moroccan officials in the occupied territory of El-Aioun," he said.

In contrast, there was also emotional and tearful testimony by a Moroccan man (Ali El Jaouhar) who was held for 23 years by Polisario.

"Torture, deprivation and humiliations were routine during my 23 years. We were beaten, usually with a braided wire, nearly every day for anything that displeased our captors. Some of my friends were tortured to death by whipping and others were left to die after being thrown in a hole and kept there without food or water," he said.

The agreement that gained the freedom of the last 404 Moroccan prisoners of war held by Polisario was reached with the help of mediation by members of the U.S. Congress, including Republican Senator Richard Lugar who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.