The United Nations' new special envoy to Western Sahara arrived Saturday in the contested desert territory in a bid to restart negotiations between the Polisario independence movement and Morocco.
Crowds of women and children welcomed Christopher Ross with chants as several hundred Saharawi troops paraded in full combat dress to mark Ross' first visit to the territory since his appointment in January. Ross visited the Saharawi camps where some 160,000 refugees live along the Algerian border.
His main task is to restart negotiations between the Polisario and Morocco, which has occupied the stretch of desert in northwestern Africa since the mid-1970s.
Ross, a former U.S. ambassador to Algeria, was quoted Friday by Morocco's official MAP news agency as saying his mission is "extremely important for the future of North Africa." He made the comment following a meeting in the Moroccan royal city of Fez with King Mohammed VI.
Ross said he would aim to resolve the negotiations that have been dragging on since 1991 "in a spirit of frankness, wisdom, confidence and respect," MAP reported.
The U.N. envoy refused to make any further statements to reporters Saturday in the Western Sahara. U.N. staff explained that Ross did not want to make too many public comments before having met with all parties in the talks.
Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until 1975, when Morocco invaded shortly after the Spanish pullout. The Polisario Front resisted with Algerian backing in a guerrilla war that ended in 1991 under a U.N.-brokered cease-fire.
The peace deal called for the U.N. to organize a referendum on the future of the desert territory, which remains mostly under Moroccan control. But the referendum has not yet taken place amid ongoing bickering over who should be allowed to vote.
Western Sahara's original population was fewer than 400,000 people. Morocco wants the 100,000 settlers it brought to the territory to be eligible to cast ballots, but the Polisario refuses.
Meanwhile, Moroccans have built a 1,600-mile (2,600-kilometer) barrier of barbed wire, concrete walls and several million land mines to keep out the Polisario and the 160,000 refugees living in tents and mud huts near the Algerian border.
More than 40,000 of them are housed in Smara, one of five refugee camps scattered across the moonscapes of the Sahara Desert where the refugees and the exiled Polisario government survive on life-support from the Algerian government and international aid.
"Self-determination: the day of Saharawi independence is coming," chanted the women and children who lined a wind-beaten track to greet Ross in the refugee camp.
Negotiations have been blocked for nearly a year since Morocco decided to offer an enhanced autonomy plan for the Western Sahara instead of a referendum.
The Polisario has categorically refused, and delegates have warned that peace talks cannot resume on such a basis.
"We have respected the cease-fire, but what is it for if there are no more negotiations?" asked Moubarak Lahdeib, the vice president of the Polisario's consultative council, which gathers the main chiefs of the nomadic desert tribes that make up Western Sahara.
"The U.N. must remember that we also know how to fight," Lahdeib said in his speech to Ross and other delegates.
He and other chiefs called on the U.N. to urgently organize the referendum on independence it had committed to. "If Saharawis vote and decide they want to be Moroccans, we will respect that," Lahdeib said. "But there must be a vote."
Ross has declined to comment on when talks might resume. He is due to meet Western Sahara's President-in-exile, Mohamed Abdelaziz, on Sunday before heading to Algiers, Madrid and Paris.
Abdelaziz told The Associated Press in December that the new administration of President Barack Obama would give the U.S. a "historic chance" of solving one of the seemingly intractable conflicts of the world.
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