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Tuesday, 30 October, 2001, 17:15 GMT
Moroccan king to visit Western Sahara
Western Sahara remains a disputed land
By David Bamford in Rabat

King Mohammed VI of Morocco begins a controversial tour of the disputed Western Sahara on Thursday, his first visit since becoming monarch in 1999.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco
The king's first visit to the troubled region since he took to the throne
He was originally due to visit on Tuesday, but the reason for the delay is unclear.

The interior ministry said it was just another stage in the king's current tour of Morocco's southern regions.

But the visit coincides with fresh protests by the Polisario Front independence movement, which has seen Morocco as an occupying power since Spanish withdrawal in 1975.

The Front has been particularly angered by Morocco's recent oil exploration deals with French and US oil companies to work off the Saharan coast.

UN moves

The United Nations also does not recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the region.

But UN efforts to resolve the dispute by a referendum of its population have faltered.

James Baker
UN special envoy James Baker is mediating the conflict
The king's visit has been preceded by announcements that two oil companies have signed deals with Morocco to explore for oil off the Western Sahara coast.

Polisario leader Mohammed Abdel Aziz described the move as a provocation.

It has also emerged that Morocco's decision at the weekend to recall its ambassador in Spain is tied to a recent Spanish refusal to back a behind-the-scenes French initiative that would have strengthened Morocco's case at the UN.

There have also been disagreements with Spain over the issue of African illegal immigration and fishing rights off the Western Sahara.

A Moroccan official said that Spanish interference over the Western Sahara issue was the straw that broke the camel's back.

Autonomy plan

In June, the Moroccan Government agreed to the UN plan proposing autonomy to Western Sahara as a basis for negotiations on a final settlement in the 26-year-old conflict.

Polisario soldier
The Polisario Front does not accept the latest referendum plan
But the Polisario Movement angrily rejected the plan and threatened to go back to war.

The contrast in reactions was hardly surprising given that the plan conceded much to Morocco, and gives little away to the Sahrawi nationalist movement led by the Polisario Front.

Put together by the UN secretary-general's special envoy to the Western Sahara, James Baker, the plan would have seen Morocco guaranteed sovereignty over the territory for four years, including Moroccan control of internal security and the judicial system.

In exchange, the Sahrawi population were to be given some leeway in controlling their own economic and social affairs.

See also:

24 Jun 01 | Media reports
Maghreb media debate Western Sahara plan
23 Jun 01 | Africa
Annan backs Western Sahara plan
01 Mar 01 | Africa
Sahara refugees' long wait
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