MANHASSET, New York (Reuters) - Morocco and the Polisario independence movement again rejected each other’s proposals on the future of Western Sahara at talks overshadowed by violence in the territory, a U.N. mediator said on Tuesday.
But the long-standing foes agreed to pursue limited confidence-building measures and to step up the pace of their meetings, in what mediator Christopher Ross called a “new dynamic” in the slow-moving negotiations.
Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony in northwest Africa that was annexed by Morocco in 1975, sparking a rebellion by the Polisario Front. The United Nations brokered a cease-fire in 1991, but a political settlement to Africa’s longest-running territorial dispute has eluded negotiators.
The territory erupted into violence on Monday when Moroccan security forces broke up a protest camp near Sahara’s main city, Laayoune. Polisario said 11 civilians died while Morocco said eight of its security forces were killed.
In a statement after two days of talks at Manhasset, near New York City, Ross said the two sides observed “an atmosphere of mutual respect, despite the fact that each party continues to reject the proposal of the other as a basis for future negotiations.”
Rabat has proposed that Western Sahara become an autonomous region of Morocco. Polisario has insisted on a referendum among Sahrawis — as the desert territory’s inhabitants are known — in which full independence would be one option.
Ross said that at a meeting also attended by officials from neighboring Algeria and Mauritania, the parties agreed to resume family visits by air “without delay” and to speed up the start of such visits also by road.
Many Sahrawi families are divided between those who still live in the territory and those living in camps across the border in Algeria, which backs Polisario.
Ross, a former U.S. diplomat, also said the two sides had agreed to meet in December and early next year “to pursue, through innovative approaches, the negotiating process.” He gave no further details.
Western Sahara, a thinly populated desert tract about the size of Britain, has rich fishing grounds off its coast and reserves of phosphates, used to make fertilizer and detergent. It may also have oil and gas reserves.
The failure to resolve the Sahara dispute has irritated Western states including the United States, which believe the divide between Morocco and Algeria is hampering cooperation against al Qaeda militancy in the region.
The latest attempt at a diplomatic solution began in 2007, when both sides advanced their rival proposals. Since then there have been four rounds of formal talks and three informal ones.
Speaking to reporters after the latest talks, officials from both sides sparred over Monday’s clashes at the camp, set up a month ago by Sahrawis to demand jobs and better services.
Chief Polisario negotiator Khatri Addu said the violence created “a tense environment among the participants” in the talks, but the most important thing was that the meeting took place.
Moroccan Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri said security forces had moved in because some protesters rejected a peaceful settlement. He accused Polisario of seeking “to exploit anything to avoid a deep and continuous negotiation.”
Moroccan security forces were deployed in Laayoune in large numbers on Tuesday, but there was no repeat of Monday’s violence, although tension persisted, residents said.