May 22, 2017 / 5:57 PM / in 6 months

Panama frees Morocco phosphate shipment held in Western Sahara claim

RABAT, May 22 (Reuters) - Panama authorities have released a Moroccan phosphate shipment from the disputed Western Sahara territory after it was temporarily held by a legal challenge from the Polisario independence movement, officials said on Monday.

The vessel was held on May 18 and is the second tanker carrying phosphate cargo from Moroccan exporter OCP stopped this month by a Polisario challenge. Polisario claims the cargo was transported illegally, a new tactic in its dispute with Morocco.

Western Sahara has been disputed since 1975, when Morocco claimed it as part of the kingdom and the Polisario fought a guerrilla war for the Sahrawi people’s independence. A 1991 ceasefire split the region in two between what Morocco calls its southern provinces and an area controlled by Polisario.

A source in the OCP said the Danish charter vessel Ultra Innovation, carrying 55,000 tonnes of phosphate rock through Panama to the Port of Vancouver for agricultural products supplier Agrium, was released, but did not comment further.

In a statement, Agrium said the shipping company posted a bond for the release of the ship. The phosphate cargo’s estimated value was around $6 million, Polisario had said.

A Panamanian judicial source said the ship was released after the bond was placed.

Morocco’s OCP, or Office Cherifien de Phosphate (OCP), is the world’s leading phosphate exporter and operates in the Moroccan-held areas of the disputed territory.

Earlier in the month, the Marshall Island-flagged NM Cherry Blossom, also carrying phosphate from Laayoune in the Moroccan part of the disputed territory for OCP, was detained in South Africa’s Port Elizabeth under a civil maritime court order.

On Thursday, the South African court reserved a judgment on the case and extended the hold on the vessel to June 9.

In a statement on MAP state news agency, the OCP has called Polisario’s charges in the South African court a “misplaced and inappropriate attempt to circumvent the current international political process actively pursued by the United Nations Security Council.”

The United Nations Security Council has called for fresh negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario, which runs its self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic or SADR.

Talks have failed for years to end the dispute. Morocco wants the region to have autonomy within Moroccan sovereignty. Polisario wants to hold a referendum on self-determination, including on the question of independence. (Editing by Patrick Markey and Mark Potter)

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