February 15, 2011 / 5:53 PM / 8 years ago

Morocco fears Algeria may stir Western Sahara unrest

RABAT (Reuters) - Morocco said Algeria and the Polisario Front, which wants independence for Western Sahara, may use political upheavals sweeping some countries in the Arab world to stir unrest in the disputed desert region.

Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri also urged Algeria, Morocco’s neighbor and the Polisario Front’s biggest supporter, to turn the page on past disputes and focus on greater economic cooperation.

Morocco annexed the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony in 1975, sparking an armed conflict with the Polisario.

A U.N.-brokered ceasefire was reached in 1991 on the promise that a referendum would be held to decide the fate of the territory, but differences between the two sides about who is eligible to vote sabotaged it.

Morocco has offered limited autonomy to Western Sahara, a thinly populated region that has rich fishing waters and phosphate deposits, and may also have oil and gas reserves.

Polisario and its ally Algeria reject this and say they want a referendum, with independence for Western Sahara as one of the options.

In unprecedented violence in November, about a dozen people, mostly Moroccan security force members, were killed after they broke up a protest camp near the territory’s main city Laayoune.

Speaking of the popular unrest in parts of Arab world, Fihri told state television: “The enemies of our territorial integrity will probably use it to push forward their agenda ... What the Polisario and Algeria are looking for is to create some disturbance in this region.”

He urged Algeria to focus on forging ahead with a long-dormant plan to create a regional economic bloc that includes Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania.

“Let’s forget about the past,” he said, addressing Algeria.

He said a plan by the country to devolve some power to regions would start with the disputed territory. “A referendum cannot be implemented,” he said.

Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi held a rare meeting late on Monday with leaders of the main political parties ahead of a February 20 march planned by a group of young Moroccans to demand constitutional reform and an independent justice system.

Government spokesman Khalid Naciri said the prime minister promised political parties that “social, economic and political issues” would be tackled.

“There already is a dynamic to react to these demands ... These demands have been on the government’s agenda for some time ... We are listening and we don’t just listen: We look for solutions,” Naciri told reporters.

Credit rating agencies Standard & Poor’s and Fitch have said Morocco is the least likely Maghreb state to be affected by the wave of popular unrest.

Editing by Jon Hemming

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