August 12, 2009 / 2:10 PM / 10 years ago

Morocco, Polisario see talks continuing this year

VIENNA (Reuters) - Morocco and the Polisario Western Sahara independence movement on Wednesday said they hoped talks to resolve their 34-year dispute would continue and said two days of discussions in Austria had been “frank” and “deep”.

A demonstrator gestures during a pro-Western Sahara independence demonstration in a file photo. Reuters/Old

Negotiators met on Monday and Tuesday in the Austrian town of Duernstein on the Danube west of Vienna for U.N.-hosted talks aimed at unblocking the dispute over the resource-rich strip on the western edge of the Sahara desert.

“It was for the first time a good atmosphere,” Mhamed Khadad, Polisario’s U.N. coordinator and a member of the delegation, told Reuters before leaving Vienna airport.

“It was a very frank and very deep debate and each delegation could defend its point of view about the solution of the conflict,” Khadad said of the talks, the first since failed negotiations near New York last year.

Western diplomats say the row over Western Sahara, a territory slightly bigger than Britain with under half a million people, is hampering efforts to tackle an insurgency linked to al Qaeda that is spreading south through the Sahara desert.

Both Khadad and one of his counterparts in the talks, Morocco’s Foreign Minister Tayed Fassi Fihri, said there was no sign yet of a compromise regarding the main disagreement.

Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1975 and is now offering it autonomy but the Polisario movement, which fought a guerrilla war until 1991 and is backed by neighbouring Algeria, is demanding a referendum on Western Sahara’s future.

“The Vienna talks were an opportunity to clarify and give answers about the Moroccan proposal to convince the other side,” Fihri told Reuters by telephone.

“I hope the picture is now 100 percent clear. Morocco will pursue its efforts on the same path,” he added, reiterating the kingdom’s rejection of a referendum.

U.N. MEDIATION

But Polisario’s Khadad said the spirit of the talks signalled a new momentum.

“Unfortunately we have not reached common ground until now. But some steps have been done because of the atmosphere and the very frank and very deep conversations on the issue,” he said.

A former Spanish colony until Madrid pulled out in 1975, Western Sahara has reserves of phosphates — used in fertiliser — and the potential for big offshore oil and gas finds. No country recognises Morocco’s rule.

Christopher Ross, U.N. mediator in the conflict, said on Tuesday he would arrange another round of talks as soon as possible. He left open whether those talks would follow the same “informal” format in Duernstein or would be formal talks like the four failed previous attempts.

Khadad and Fihri both said they expected the next round of talks before the end of the year.

Khadad reiterated Polisario’s demand that Europe, especially France and Spain, had to be involved in finding a solution.

“Those countries, the former colonial powers in this region, have great responsibility,” Khadad said. “We are urging them to contribute to peace ... by putting pressure on the parties.”

Algeria and Mauritania, which also borders Western Sahara, were also present in parts of the Duernstein talks.

The dispute has soured relations between Algeria and Morocco and limited their cooperation in fighting al Qaeda’s North African wing.

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