UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Morocco and Western Sahara’s independence movement opened informal talks on Wednesday, with U.N. mediators pressing them to engage in earnest on the future of the disputed resource-rich territory.
More than three decades after their conflict started, Rabat and the Polisario Front introduced new proposals three years ago but formal negotiations broke down after less than a year. A bid to revive them last year was held up by fresh tensions.
Despite a blizzard sweeping the U.S. eastern seaboard that closed U.N. headquarters in Manhattan, negotiators from the two sides began a two-day meeting at a secluded private conference center north of New York City, U.N. officials said.
No major breakthroughs are expected on the substance of the dispute, but the world body is hoping to pave the way for full-scale negotiations to resume.
“There have been tensions, without a doubt. However, both sides have told me they are prepared to come to this round in a productive, serious frame of mind, and I expect they will,” U.N. mediator Christopher Ross told reporters last week.
Morocco annexed the northwest African territory in 1975 and is now offering it autonomy. But Polisario, which fought a guerrilla war until 1991, demands a referendum on the future of the former Spanish colony with independence as one option.
Western Sahara, which is slightly bigger than Britain, has under half a million people known as Sahrawis. But it is rich in phosphates — used in fertilizer — and, potentially, offshore oil and gas.
No country recognizes Morocco’s rule. However, the United States, France and Spain have praised Rabat’s proposal.
Western diplomats say the dispute is hampering efforts to tackle an insurgency linked to al Qaeda that is spreading south through the Sahara Desert. Tension between Morocco and Algeria, which backs Polisario, also has scuttled attempts to form a European Union-style grouping in the area.
This week’s talks will follow a format devised by Ross, a former U.S. diplomat, who organized informal discussions of just three officials per side in Austria last August to improve the atmosphere and work on confidence-building measures.
Small teams of negotiators met in the town of Duernstein, west of Vienna, and praised the session as “frank” and “deep.” U.N. officials believe those talks promoted “discussions instead of speeches” and re-established a respectful relationship between the sides.
But in October, Morocco arrested seven Sahara rights activists and tension rose further when Polisario activist Aminatou Haidar staged a monthlong hunger strike in Spain.
Rabat had refused to let her back into Western Sahara unless she declared loyalty to Morocco’s king. She was eventually allowed to return home in December after the United States, Spain and other countries intervened.
At Duernstein, Morocco and Polisario agreed to discuss with the U.N. refugee agency overland visits between Sahrawis in Western Sahara and those exiled in camps in Algeria, and to hold confidence-building meetings between Sahrawis and Moroccans. Nothing has yet come of either agreement.
Diplomats said the emphasis this week was likely to shift to the parties’ core plans for Sahara.
“The main purpose here is to get the parties to engage seriously on the two proposals,” said one senior diplomat who follows the issue. But he added, “Progress is likely to be very slow.”
Morocco’s team was being led by Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri and Polisario’s by Mahfoud Ali Beiba, speaker of the movement’s parliament-in-exile, U.N. officials said.