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World News

No breakthrough in Western Sahara talks

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Two days of talks on the future of Western Sahara between Morocco and the territory’s independence movement ended on Saturday with no breakthrough in the 32-year-old dispute, but agreement to meet again.

The talks centred on whether, as Rabat proposes, the territory should be an autonomous part of Morocco, which annexed it in 1975, or have its fate decided in a referendum with the option of independence, as the Polisario Front wants.

The U.N.-mediated negotiations at Manhasset, near New York, were the second round since Morocco and Polisario submitted rival plans for the resource-rich former Spanish colony to the United Nations in April.

In a statement, U.N. mediator Peter van Walsum said the date and venue of the next round of talks remained to be decided. Earlier, Polisario’s U.N. representative, Ahmed Boukhari, had said he expected them to be held in Europe later this year.

Morocco’s delegation leader, Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa, told a news conference his country preferred not to fix a time or place because elections that will bring a new government to power were approaching.

Van Walsum’s brief statement described the talks as substantive, adding: “The parties acknowledge that the current status quo is unacceptable and they have agreed to continue these negotiations in good faith.”

Morocco and the Polisario, based in neighbouring Algeria, also issued statements paying lip-service to the negotiations, but with barbed comments that made clear the gulf that remained between them.

U.N. COUNCIL DIVIDED

Benmoussa accused Polisario of failing to seize an opportunity to make progress and “clinging to plans and proposals that proved inapplicable.”

Polisario chief delegate Mahfoud Ali Beiba called on Morocco to “cease its dilatory manoeuvres” and end “its repressive practices and repeated violations of human rights in the occupied territories of Western Sahara.”

Western Sahara, on the coast of northwest Africa, is home to some 260,000 people and has lucrative phosphate deposits, rich fishing grounds and, potentially, oil.

No country recognizes Morocco’s rule over the territory, but the U.N. Security Council is divided, with some non-aligned states supporting Polisario while France and the United States back Morocco. Washington wants the Sahara dispute settled so North African countries can focus on fighting terrorism.

Last month, an American U.N. envoy praised Rabat’s self-rule plan as “realistic.” In an interview this week with Reuters, Polisario official Mohammed Khadad said that statement “comforts Morocco in its intransigence” and made the talks less likely to succeed.

Polisario’s proposal is for a referendum among Sahrawis that would offer a choice between independence, autonomy or full integration into Morocco.

Rabat agreed in the past to a referendum but now says that has proved impossible to organize due to an inability to agree on who would vote, and that autonomy is the only solution.

At this week’s talks, van Walsum proposed the sides discuss confidence-building measures to make tangible improvements in the life of Sahrawis.

Boukhari said Polisario had agreed, but a Moroccan official who asked not to be identified said Rabat believed the current talks were not the right forum.

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