U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says he wants renewed negotiations to resolve the Western Sahara conflict, which has pitted Morocco against the Polisario Front independence movement for 40 years.
In a report to the U.N. Security Council this week, Guterres proposed relaunching the negotiations “with a new dynamic and a new spirit.”
The goal, he said, should be reaching “a mutually acceptable political solution” that would include “an accord on the nature and form that the exercise of self-determination” would take for the disputed and mineral-rich Western Sahara area.
Morocco annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, in 1975 and fought the Polisario Front. The U.N. brokered a cease-fire in 1991 and established a peacekeeping mission to monitor it and to help prepare a referendum on the territory’s future that has never taken place.
Morocco considers the Western Sahara its “southern provinces” and has proposed giving the territory wide-ranging autonomy. The Polisario Front insists on self-determination through a referendum for the local population, which it estimates at between 350,000 and 500,000.
Guterres said in the report that he hopes to start new negotiations “on the basis of consultations with the parties and neighboring states, members of the Friends of Western Sahara Group and the Security Council, as well as other important parties.”
Morocco’s government wants Algeria to be involved in any future talks and considers the neighboring North African country a party to the conflict. Algeria says it is not directly involved in the conflict and supports the U.N. process.
The U.N. chief expressed concern about the tense situation in Guerguerat, a town in the buffer zone on the Morocco-Mauritanian border, and asked the Polisario to “pull out completely and unconditionally” from the site.
The Guerguerat crisis began in August, when Morocco started work on a road in the area. Ragat said the work was needed to combat contraband. The Polisario Front protested and deployed armed forces, saying the road work violated the cease-fire accord. Morocco denied breaking the accord.
At the request of the U.N., Morocco pulled out of Guerguerat in February. The Polisario Front’s forces remain in place.
Guterres is expected to name a new envoy for Western Sahara. Morocco accused the previous special envoy, Christopher Ross, of having a “bias in favor of Polisario.” Ross resigned in January.
The name most often floated to succeed Ross is former German President Horst Kohler.