The United Nations' new envoy to the Western Sahara on Sunday reasserted the Saharawi people's right to self-determination, a stance that could further complicate negotiations with Morocco, which refuses any such solution to the long-standing conflict.
Christopher Ross said his main goal was to restart peace talks between Moroccans and the Polisario Front to end the conflict that has dragged on since Morocco annexed the desert territory in 1975.
Negotiations must tend to "a solution that includes the right of the Saharawi people to self-determination," Ross said in speech he read in Arabic to the Saharawi president-in-exile and an assembly of ministers and chiefs from the nomadic tribes that make up Western Sahara.
Talks between Morocco and the Polisario independence movement have stalled for nearly a year since Morocco backtracked on a U.N. plan for a referendum to determine Western Sahara's future. Morocco wants negotiations to focus instead on its proposal for enlarged autonomy.
Ross was appointed U.N. envoy in January after his predecessor, Peter van Walsum, angered the Polisario by calling its demands for independence unrealistic.
Ross declined to comment on when negotiations might resume or whether Morocco's King Mohamed VI, whom he met earlier this week, had agreed to the idea of again discussing self-determination. He did not explicitly mention any possible timing for a referendum, but his call for "a political solution mutually acceptable to Morocco and the Polisario" was perceived by the Saharawis as strong backing.
"It's positive, Ross told me he'd work on reopening negotiations without preconditions," said Mohamed Abdelaziz, the Saharawi president-in-exile. "He could truly contribute to solving this conflict."
Morocco said it would closely examine Ross' statement before commenting.
The referendum plan included in the U.N.-brokered cease-fire deal never took place because the two sides cannot agree on voting lists. Morocco wants to include the 100,000 settlers it brought to Western Sahara, while the Polisario wants to count only the original residents and the 160,000 Saharawi refugees now living in camps near Algeria.
More than two-thirds of Western-Sahara is under Moroccan control. Morocco has built a 1,600-mile (2,600-kilometer) barrier of barbed wire, concrete walls and some 5 million land mines to keep Polisario forces and refugees out of the zones where it mines for phosphate and other minerals.
Abdelaziz said that by conditioning new talks to the acceptance of their autonomy plan, "Morocco is putting the cart before the horse, it's not reasonable."
He said Ross, a former U.S. ambassador to Algeria, appeared to combine the right background and international backing to finally broker a peace deal. He hoped the new U.S. administration of Barack Obama would also prove more intent on settling the conflict.
"The Moroccans are playing the clock by not negotiating," Abdelaziz said. "But it's in nobody's interest," he said, listing the refugees living in camps as well as Morocco's own huge military expenses to sustain 150,000 troops while the conflict simmers.
The outside world should also recognize that "solving the crisis for the Saharawis will help prevent instability in the whole region," Abdelaziz said, referring to the increasingly volatile zones of the Sahara desert in nearby Mauritania, Mali and Niger where traffickers, various rebel movements, and al-Qaida aligned gunmen operate.
Associated Press Writer Hassan Alaoui contributed to this report in Rabat, Morocco.
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