March 13, 2008 / 12:44 PM / 12 years ago

PREVIEW-Optimism wanes in talks to end W. Sahara limbo

By Tom Pfeiffer

RABAT, March 13 (Reuters) - Talks over the future of Western Sahara resume on Sunday with little prospect of an end to a three-decade deadlock that has poisoned relations between Algeria and Morocco and held back the region’s development.

Morocco, which annexed the northwest African territory in 1975, and ethnic Sahrawi independence movement Polisario Front have maintained irreconcilable positions since the talks began last June, frustrating United Nations mediators.

Optimism that greeted the start of talks has dwindled after Polisario, which is backed by Algeria, rejected Morocco’s offer of limited autonomy for Western Sahara and Morocco ruled out Polisario’s demand for a referendum on self-determination.

"I don’t expect anything to come out of these negotiations because they are proceeding under bad faith," said Jacob Mundy, a Western Sahara expert at Middle East research group MERIP.

"Morocco has no intention of allowing for self-determination and Polisario has no intention of discussing autonomy."

Analysts said the U.S. presidential elections were also hanging over the fourth round of talks near New York and the main players would shun any commitments before knowing future U.S. policy in the region.

Claiming age-old rights over the territory, Morocco moved into Western Sahara after colonial power Spain withdrew, triggering a war with Polisario that lasted until 1991 when the U.N. brokered a ceasefire.

Morocco controls 85 percent of the territory, including the coastline with its rich fishing grounds, the main towns and most of the area’s natural resources. Stalemate in talks allows it to maintain that status quo.

Tens of thousands of Sahrawis displaced by the conflict have lived since the mid-1970s in camps on a windy plateau deep in the Algerian desert and rely on aid, much of it from Algeria.

No country recognizes Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara. An International Court of Justice advisory body found in 1975 that there were some legal ties between Western Sahara and Morocco but this did not imply sovereigty.

But Morocco has powerful allies — France, Spain and the United States — which have all voiced support for its autonomy plan while denying any partiality in the dispute.

Algeria opposes Morocco’s offer, a position Rabat says is aimed at furthering Algeria’s sphere of influence and destabilising the region.


The United Nations was supposed to stage a vote allowing Western Saharans to choose their leaders but Morocco now opposes that, saying the region is part of its national territory.

The U.N. mission set up to organise the vote, Minurso, now limits its role to monitoring movements of troops and military equipment and the destruction of millions of war-era landmines.

Independence campaigners complain that role is too narrow and that Morocco has been free to pour money and people into the area of Western Sahara it controls to cement its hold on the territory and exploit its natural resources.

Sahrawi rights campaigners say Minurso has also failed to protect independence activists from beatings, torture and intimidation by the Moroccan authorities.

Activists jailed on disorder or assault charges began a hunger strike last month to demand better conditions and call for Western Saharan self-determination.

"The health of the Sahrawi political detainees ... requires a rapid and urgent intervention to save their lives," Sahrawi rights group ASVDH said in a statement.

Morocco denies mistreating Sahrawi activists and said a 2006 U.N. report accusing the Moroccan authorities of abusing their rights was clearly biased in favour of Polisario.

Polisario said in December it might resume war but analysts say Algeria is unlikely to allow that to happen and risk being dragged into a new conflict.

"I am certain that the two present parties, Morocco and the Polisario Front, have still not exhausted all the possibilities offered by negotiations and the benefit of speaking directly..", Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika told Reuters. (Additional reporting by William Maclean; editing by Andrew Roche)

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