UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Morocco and Western Sahara’s independence movement will resume talks next week to try to make headway in the 35-year dispute over the Northwest African territory, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
Negotiators from the two adversaries will hold informal U.N.-mediated discussions on February 10-11 in Westchester County, north of New York City, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said. He gave no further details of the venue.
Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1975 and is now offering it autonomy, but the Polisario independence movement, which fought a guerrilla war until 1991, is demanding a referendum on the territory’s future with independence as one option.
Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony slightly bigger than Britain, has under half a million people but is rich in phosphates — used in fertilizer — and, potentially, offshore oil and gas.
No country recognizes Morocco’s rule, but the United States, France and Spain have praised Morocco’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, has also scuttled attempts to form a European Union-style grouping in the area.
Morocco and Polisario began their latest series of talks three years ago but four rounds of formal negotiations went virtually nowhere. The U.N. mediator, former U.S. diplomat Christopher Ross, then proposed informal discussions to improve the atmosphere and work on confidence-building measures.
In August, small teams of negotiators met in the Austrian town of Duernstein, west of Vienna, and afterward praised the session as “frank” and “deep.” Next week’s talks will continue the informal format.
In December, however, tension rose when Polisario activist Aminatou Haidar staged a month-long hunger strike in a Spanish airport after Rabat refused to let her back into Western Sahara unless she declared loyalty to Morocco’s king.
Morocco let her return home after the United States, Spain and other countries intervened.
Morocco, meanwhile, is going ahead with a plan to devolve some power to its regions that analysts say is linked to its autonomy proposal for Sahara. Polisario activists say the plan is a smokescreen to tighten control over the territory.
The United Nations says the aim of next week’s talks is to prepare the ground for another round of formal negotiations.
Polisario’s New York office said its team would be the same as at the Austria talks, led by Mahfoud Ali Beiba, speaker of Polisario’s parliament-in-exile. Moroccan Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri led his country’s team at Duernstein.