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U.N. chief says envoy to restart diplomacy for Western Sahara talks

ALGIERS (Reuters) - United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon said on Sunday he had asked his envoy for the disputed Western Sahara territory to meet the Polisario independence movement and Morocco to bring the two sides back to negotiations to end their conflict.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (L) walks as he arrives at the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic presidential palace in Tindouf southern Algeria March 5, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Morocco took most of Western Sahara in 1975 following the withdrawal of the colonial power Spain. The Polisario Front, which says the territory belongs to ethnic Sahrawis, waged a guerrilla war until a U.N.-brokered ceasefire in 1991.

U.N. attempts to hold a referendum on the future of the region have failed since then, with the two sides deadlocked.

“I asked my special envoy Christopher Ross to resume his shuttle diplomacy to create the appropriate atmosphere for the resumption of talks,” Ban said in Algiers after visiting the Sahrawi refugee camps where Polisario Front is based in southern Algeria, near the Moroccan border.

Ban has said he wants to relaunch negotiations to resolve the conflict so Sahrawi refugees can return home to Western Sahara. He said on Sunday he would call for a donors’ conference to raise funds for the Sahrawi camps.

Many of the Sahrawi refugees, who fled the fighting in Western Sahara, have been living in mud brick houses in the harsh Tindouf area in southern Algeria for some 40 years.

Polisario leader Mohammed Abdelaziz last week called Ban’s visit the best chance in a long time to reset negotiations, but many in the Sahrawi camps are deeply frustrated over the long-delayed referendum and lack of progress.

Polisario, backed by Morocco’s regional rival and neighbour Algeria and a number of other African states, wants to hold a referendum promised in the ceasefire deal on the region’s fate.

But Rabat wants Western Sahara, which is rich in phosphates and possibly offshore oil and gas, to be an autonomous part of Morocco and disagrees with Polisario over who should take part in the referendum.

Morocco’s king insisted late last year that only the autonomy plan was acceptable. Rabat has invested heavily in Western Sahara, hoping to calm unrest and ease independence claims from the Sahrawi living there.

Reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Andrew Bolton