UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) 8/1/2008 – Morocco and the Polisario independence movement began a round of talks on Western Sahara on Tuesday amid Polisario threats of renewed conflict and doubts that the negotiations would yield results.
The U.N.-sponsored talks in Manhasset, near New York City, are the third round to tackle Africa’s longest-running territorial dispute since the two sides submitted rival proposals for the resource-rich region last April.
A U.N. spokesman declined to comment on what the United Nations hoped would be the result of the talks, which are expected to run into Wednesday.
Polisario, which is backed by Morocco’s regional rival Algeria, said last month war may resume if the talks fail to reach an accord on whether Western Sahara should be independent or an autonomous region of Morocco.
But analysts say war is unlikely for now as Polisario relies heavily on Algeria, which has no wish to increase regional tensions.
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.
A statement issued on Monday by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spokeswoman Michel Montas indicated the parties still were far from resolving their differences.
Ban "recognizes that it will take both time and patience to negotiate a mutually acceptable solution," Montas said.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), a non-governmental rights watchdog, said the talks should be accompanied by promises from the Moroccan government to respect freedom of expression in the Western Sahara.
HRW said in a statement that it recently conducted a two-week mission to the region and refugee camps in Algeria controlled by the Polisario to observe conditions on the ground.
The group accused Rabat of "muzzling those who peacefully advocate an independent Western Sahara," saying this undermined Moroccan statements that the majority of the Sahrawi people want Western Sahara to be part of Morocco.
North African countries are under pressure to settle their differences in order to better deal with growing violence by al Qaeda-linked radical Islamists. Algeria has suffered a series of deadly suicide bombings since early last year, the latest on December 11 killing 37 people, including 17 U.N. staff in Algiers.
The desert territory of 260,000 on Africa’s Atlantic coast holds phosphates, rich fisheries and potentially offshore oil.
Rabat is trying to convince 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.
No state recognizes Morocco’s rule over Western Sahara but the Security Council is divided. Some non-aligned states back Polisario, but France and the United States support Rabat.