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RABAT/ALGIERS (Reuters) - A Moroccan phosphate ship has been held in a South African port by a complaint from Western Sahara Polisario movement that it transported cargo unlawfully from the disputed territory, a lawyer and Polisario said on Wednesday.
The seizure of the vessel, carrying 50,000 tonnes of phosphate to New Zealand, may be a test for the Polisario's use of a European court decision last year that ruled Western Sahara should not be considered part of the Moroccan kingdom in EU and Moroccan deals.
Western Sahara has been disputed since 1975 when Morocco claimed it and the Polisario movement fought a guerilla war for the Sahrawi people's independence there. A ceasefire in 1991 split the region in two between what Morocco calls its southern Sahara and an area controlled by Polisario.
The two sides have been since locked in diplomatic and legal tussles though tensions flared last year when U.N. peacekeepers had to step in between Moroccan forces and Polisario brigades in the buffer zone near the Mauritania border.
The Marshall Island-flagged NM Cherry Blossom, carrying phosphate from Laayoune in the Moroccan part of the disputed territory for state-run OCP, has been held in Port Elizabeth by a civil maritime court order, OCP said.
"The order issued in South Africa regarding the cargo of the NM Cherry Blossom is a standard temporary measure made on the basis of only one party's allegations," OCP legal counsel Othmane Bennani Smires told Reuters by telephone.
"We are fully confident of a favourable resolution once the actual facts of this case are presented to the South African court."
He said OCP's Phosboucraa subsidiary and its activities are in full compliance "with the United Nations framework and relevant international legal norms and standards".
The sparsely populated stretch of desert bordering the Atlantic Ocean, Western Sahara has rich offshore fishing as well as phosphate and possibly oil reserves. OCP, or Office Cherifien de Phosphate (OCP) is the world's leading phosphate exporter.
Southern African maritime authorities were not immediately available to comment or confirm details but OCP confirmed the other party in the case was Polisario.
Polisario chief negotiator Mohamed Khadad said they had filed the case based on the Western Sahara's status defined by the U.N. as a non-self governing territory, to protect its natural resources, and also based on the EU court decision.
"There is no possibility to exploit the natural resources of the Western Sahara without the consent of the people of the Western Sahara," Khadad told Reuters.
"We are convinced, we have been following it from the port of the Laayoune," he said. "It is a matter of law. We will abide by the last decision of the court."
In January, Morocco rejoined the African Union regional body, where Polisario's self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) is also a member. South Africa along with Algeria have been key supporters of the SADR.
The NM Cherry Blossom case comes as the U.N. Security Council has backed attempts to restart talks between Morocco and Polisario for a mutually acceptable political solution to the question of the region's self-determination.
Talks have failed for years to bring an end to the dispute. Morocco wants the region to have autonomy within Moroccan sovereignty while Polisario calls for a referendum on self-determination, including on the question of independence.
Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Tom Heneghan