(Reuters) - Talks on the fate of Western Sahara resume next week and independence movement Polisario has warned its foe Morocco that failure to find common ground may rekindle war in a region struggling to contain al Qaeda-linked violence.
Here are some key facts on Western Sahara:
— Morocco seized Western Sahara after Spain gave up administering the territory in 1975 and Mauritania abandoned its claim to part of it. A low-intensity guerrilla war with the independence movement, the Polisario Front, was waged until the United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991. The U.N.-mediated ceasefire came with the promise of a referendum but Morocco has refused to allow a vote.
— The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), declared by Polisario in 1976, is now recognized by many governments and is a full member of the African Union.
— Morocco believes it has the diplomatic clout to settle Africa’s oldest territorial dispute on its terms. Morocco claims centuries-old rights over the territory rich in phosphates, fisheries and possibly offshore oil.
— Having annexed the territory, Rabat now says autonomy is the most it will offer. It insists its autonomy plan is steeped in democratic values and investor-friendly liberal economics.
— Morocco and Polisario held two rounds of U.N.-sponsored peace talks in 2007 aimed at breaking the stalemate. A third round is due on January 7-9, 2008.
— Western Sahara’s independence movement Polisario has ample support in Africa, where many countries tend to see the territory as the continent’s last colony.
— In 2006, Polisario rejected a U.N. call for direct talks with Rabat on a promised vote on independence or to remain part of Morocco. They said the talks were too different from the existing 1991 U.N. agreement which promised residents the chance to vote in a referendum on independence. A vote has never taken place.
— In its proposal submitted to the United Nations in April 2007, Polisario said it was ready to negotiate with Morocco on ways to hold a referendum offering a choice between independence, integration into Morocco and self-governance.
— France is a close ally of Morocco but denies any partiality in Morocco’s dispute with Polisario. Morocco sees France as the main supporter for its autonomy proposal.
— Rabat’s vision of autonomy is opposed by Algeria, the key ally of Polisario and site of its headquarters. Thousands of Sahrawi refugees live in camps in the Algerian desert.
Writing by David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit