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Morocco suspends contacts with EU over court ruling on farm trade

RABAT (Reuters) - Morocco said on Thursday it had suspended contact with European Union institutions over a court ruling invalidating their farm trade accord with Rabat and saying it should exclude the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

A farmer picks strawberries, to be exported, in a field in the town of Moulay Bousselham in Kenitra province March 15, 2014. The local strawberry growers use the multi-layers planting method to gain two times more strawberries than usual. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

The EU lodged an appeal last week against a European Court decision announced on Dec. 10 to void the trade deal with Morocco in response to a suit filed by the Polisario Front, which wants independence for the Moroccan-controlled territory.

The complaint, brought to the court in 2012, involves trade of agricultural products, processed agricultural products and fisheries. Reuters reported last month the government had decided to suspend contacts with the EU delegation in Rabat.

Thursday’s statement, issued after the weekly cabinet meeting, said Morocco rejects the court ruling as against international law and U.N. Security Council resolutions.

“Morocco cannot accept to be treated as a subject of a judicial process and to be buffeted between European institutions,” it said. “Continuing in that position would deeply threaten the mutual trust and even the continuation of the partnership between the two sides.”

There was no immediate comment from the EU.

Moroccan farm trade in 2015 amounted to 43 billion dirhams ($4.39 billion) and most of it was done with EU countries.

An EU source said the December court decision would have no direct impact on trade pending a ruling on the EU appeal. But Morocco’s formal suspension of contacts could disrupt some 1.03 billion euros ($1.12 billion) of EU grants to the North African kingdom.

The EU and Morocco have struck agreements allowing duty-free quotas for agricultural products such as tomatoes and granting access for European vessels to fish in Moroccan waters in return for financial assistance. The two sides also began negotiations in 2013 to form a deeper and broader free trade agreement.

Morocco has controlled most of Western Sahara since 1975 and claims sovereignty over the sparsely populated stretch of desert to its south, which has offshore fishing, phosphate reserves and oilfield potential.

Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara prompted a rebellion by the Polisario Front backed by Morocco’s neighbour Algeria. The United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991, but talks have since failed to find a lasting settlement in Africa’s longest-running territorial dispute.

Rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accuse Morocco of continuing to use excessive force against activists and repressing political freedom in Western Sahara. Rabat invests heavily there, hoping to calm social unrest and independence claims.

Earlier this month, Morocco’s King Mohammed launched an 18 billion dirham ($1.85 billion) investment plan in Laayoune, Western Sahara’s biggest city, driven by state-run phosphate company OCP.

($1 = 9.7966 Moroccan dirham)

Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Mark Heinrich