UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Morocco and Western Sahara’s independence movement kept negotiations alive on the future of the resource-rich territory, agreeing on Tuesday to meet again in August after two days of groundbreaking talks.
But statements by the two sides suggested neither had made concessions on the key question of whether Sahara, a land of 260,000 people annexed by Morocco after Spain withdrew from its former colony in 1975, would become independent.
Senior Moroccan and Polisario Front officials held their first meeting in seven years at a secluded private estate in Manhasset on Long Island near New York, after the United Nations Security Council demanded they come to the table.
“The parties have agreed that the process of negotiations will continue in Manhasset the second week of August,” said a statement issued by Peter van Walsum, the U.N. special envoy for Western Sahara who mediated the talks.
U.N. officials have portrayed this as the best chance so far to end the 32-year-old conflict, now seen by Washington as hampering its fight against terrorism.
The United Nations brokered an end to a low-level guerrilla war in Sahara in 1991, but no political solution has followed for the northwest African territory, which has extensive phosphate deposits, rich fisheries and, potentially, oil.
Both sides vowed on Tuesday to work for a negotiated settlement after talks that also included neighboring Algeria and Mauritania.
But there was no sign of a breakthrough on the crunch issue of whether Sahara gains full independence, as Polisario wants, or autonomy within Morocco, as Rabat proposes.
Morocco’s chief delegate, Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa, told a news conference the autonomy plan was the “only realistic solution,” although it was open to improvements. But he said Polisario had not made any constructive proposals and still clung to outdated ideas.
“Morocco has given up total integration (of Sahara) and we expect the other party to give up full independence,” another official, Khalihenna Ould Errachid, head of Morocco’s Royal Consultative Council for Saharan Affairs, told reporters.
Polisario delegation leader Mahfoud Ali Beiba said his Algeria-based group “is hopeful that our Moroccan brothers face up to history together with us by seizing on this historic window of opportunity that has opened for us.”
But he insisted Polisario’s proposal for a referendum that would include independence as an option was the way out of the dispute. The Moroccan officials said a referendum had proved impossible due to an inability to agree on who would vote.
“I think we are at the very beginning of a long process,” U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas told reporters. “As you can imagine, it’s not going to be an easy process.”
No country recognizes Morocco’s rule over Western Sahara but the United States is now impatient for a deal it hopes will bring more cooperation between North African states and help combat terrorist groups in the regions bordering the Sahara.
The Western Sahara dispute is the main cause of friction between Morocco and Algeria whose land borders, closed in 1994 amid security tensions, remain shut.