December 21, 2016 / 9:42 AM / 8 months ago

EU-Morocco trade accords still valid - EU court

LUXEMBOURG, Dec 21 (Reuters) - The European Court of Justice ruled on Wednesday that two political and trade deals between Morocco and the European Union did not apply to Western Sahara and are still valid, avoiding a diplomatic dispute with Rabat.

The court said the two agreements from 2000 and 2012 "do not concern" the Polisario Front, which wants independence for Western Sahara and had challenged the accords on the grounds that Rabat was benefiting from the disputed territory.

The top court's decision overrules a 2015 decision by the lower General Court that the trade deals were void, at the time prompting Morocco briefly to suspend contact with EU institutions and the EU to lodge a legal appeal.

A court adviser said in September the annulment should be overturned, and EU judges decided to follow that opinion. The court also rejected the Polisario Front's right to appeal.

The EU and Morocco have struck agreements allowing duty-free quotas for agricultural products such as tomatoes and granting access for European vessels to fish in Moroccan waters in return for financial assistance. The two sides also began negotiations in 2013 to form a deeper and broader free trade agreement.

Morocco has controlled most of Western Sahara since 1975 and claims sovereignty over the sparsely populated stretch of desert to its south, which has offshore fishing as well as phosphate and possibly oil reserves.

But its annexation of the region led to a rebellion by the Polisario Front backed by Morocco's neighbour Algeria. The Front and Morocco have been at loggerheads ever since. (Reporting by Michele Sinner, writing by Robin Emmott; editing by Philip Blenkinsop)

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