The US on Friday pushed for renewed talks between Morocco and an armed pro-independence group, saying it was time to “turn a corner” on decades of tension in the disputed Sahara region.
Washington’s deputy UN envoy Richard Mills said the appointment this month of a UN peace envoy offered the rival forces an “overdue opportunity” to end a dispute that escalated into outbreaks of violence late last year.
He addressed a UN Security Council meeting that voted to extend the UN peacekeeping deployment to Sahara for one year and express concern over the breakdown of the 1991 ceasefire. The vote was 13-2, with Russia and Tunisia abstaining.
“The appointment of a new personal envoy presents an overdue opportunity to revitalise the UN-led political process and for the parties to turn a corner on the path to achieving a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution,” Mr Mills said.
Morocco in 1975 annexed Sahara, a former Spanish colony, igniting a conflict with the pro-independence militant group the Polisario Front. A UN ceasefire deal in 1991 established a mission to monitor the truce and to prepare for an independence referendum that has never taken place due to rows over who can vote.
Rabat has proposed wide-ranging autonomy for the territory, but Polisario officials say the local Sahrawi population — which it estimates at 350,000 to 500,000 — has the right to a referendum.
The UN this month appointed veteran Italian diplomat Staffan de Mistura as peace envoy on the dispute, filling a post that has been vacant for two years and raising the prospect of reviving a stalled negotiation process.
Mr Mills did not mention a US policy switch in the waning days of the Trump administration to recognise Morocco’s claim to the Sahara region as part of efforts to have Rabat recognise Israel as part of the Abraham Accords.
He called Morocco's autonomy plan for Sahara “serious, credible and realistic” but only “one potential approach” to ending the dispute in the oil- and mineral-rich region.
Talks involving Morocco, the Polisario Front, Algeria and Mauritania in December 2018 and March 2019 ended in a stalemate. This past year, “low-intensity hostilities” between the rival forces along the 2,700-kilometre separation barrier have occurred, the UN says.