March 22, 2008 / 8:04 PM / 10 years ago

Algeria rebuffs Moroccan call to open border

ALGIERS, March 22 (Reuters) - Algeria dismissed on Saturday a call by neighbour Morocco to reopen the land border after a 14-year closure, reiterating that the move should be part of an overall deal to improve long uneasy ties.

Algeria close the frontier in 1994 after Morocco imposed visa requirements for Algerian nationals amid security tensions between the two countries of the north African Maghreb region.

Algerian leaders have repeatedly said the border would remain shut until the two governments agree on a "pacakge of deals" that include a solution to the Western Sahara conflict.

Algerian Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni told the state APS news agency: "The problem of frontier movement cannot be disassociated from a global approach to what we want to do in the Maghreb."

"It’s not a question of building a Maghreb where some win and others lose. The Maghreb is not limited to Morocco and Algeria. All the peoples who find themselves in this group should have their place."

North African people "are for a measure that is unitary, coherent and complementary."

The Moroccan foreign ministry invited Algeria on Thursday to normalise links and reopen the border, say it was willing to open a new page in relations.

The closure is a big barrier to commerce across the Maghreb region of 80 million people from Mauritania to Libya. Morocco has been losing up to $1.0 billion per year in trade and tourism revenue because of the closure, officials and economists said.

Diplomats in Rabat say the rare Moroccan call to Algiers was part of a bid to try to end the deadlock over its dispute with the Polisario Front independence movement in Western Sahara.

Morocco took control of most of Western Sahara in 1975 when colonial power Spain withdrew, prompting a guerrilla war for independence that lasted until 1991 when the United Nations brokered a cease-fire and sent in peacekeepers.

The desert territory of 260,000 on Africa’s Atlantic coast holds phosphates, rich fisheries and potentially offshore oil.

Rabat is trying to persuade Polisario to accept its plan for Western Sahara to be an autonomous part of Morocco.

Polisario proposes a referendum among ethnic Sahrawis that includes an option of independence. (Reporting by William Maclean, editing by Richard Meares)

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