March 2, 2008 / 1:07 PM / 11 years ago

Morocco arms move may hit Sahara talks-Polisario

ALGIERS, March 2 (Reuters) - Morocco has embarked on an arms buildup in a worrying move that could hurt U.N.-backed talks on the Western Sahara, Algeria’s APS news agency quoted the territory’s independence movement as saying.

Polisario Front President Mohamed Abdelaziz added that people in the disputed territory were concerned about Morocco’s "aggressive impulse" because they did not want a return to conflict, the official agency reported late on Saturday.

There was no immediate comment from Morocco on the remarks by Abdelaziz, who is supported by Algeria.

"This race to arms is a profound worry for the Sahrawi people at a time when the Moroccan-Sahrawi conflict is in the hands of the United Nations," APS quoted him as saying.

"An intention to do harm lies behind the current Moroccan policy of obtaining all kinds of arms and redeploying military troops in Sahrawi territories," he said without elaborating.

A fourth round of U.N.-brokered talks between Morocco and Polisario to settle the status of the phosphate-rich desert territory of 260,000 will start on March 16 near New York.

But in a statement on Friday, Morocco’s Foreign Ministry denounced what it called plans by Polisario to develop infrastructure in the desert outpost of Tifariti, which lies in a small strip of Western Sahara controlled by Polisario.

"Morocco reiterates its determination to protect by all means its territorial integrity," the statement said.

Peacekeepers have watched over Western Sahara since 1991 when the United Nations brokered a ceasefire to end a guerrilla war between Polisario and Morocco, which annexed the northwest African territory in 1975.

Morocco has poured people and money into the area, bordered to the west by the Atlantic and to the east by a defensive sand wall guarded by tens of thousands of its troops and reinforced by landmines.

The ceasefire terms included holding a referendum to let the inhabitants decide their future but it never took place. Rabat now rules out such a vote and has French support for its proposal for only limited self-rule.

Polisario proposes a referendum among ethnic Sahrawis that would include an option of independence.

The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, a government in exile proclaimed by Polisario in 1976, held a meeting of its parliament in Tifariti last week that discussed public works.

Rabat says the holding of official Polisario gatherings in Tifariti violates the U.N. ceasefire agreement, which it says made Tifariti part of a buffer zone between Algeria-backed Polisario guerrillas and Moroccan troops.

No country officially recognises Morocco’s rule over Western Sahara and the U.N. Security Council is divided over a solution. (Reporting by William Maclean, editing by Sami Aboudi)

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