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Last Updated: Monday, 18 June 2007, 17:17 GMT 18:17 UK
'Groundbreaking' talks on Sahara
By Richard Hamilton
BBC News, Rabat

Sahrawi women (Image: Steve Franck)
The arid region is rich in phosphates and maybe oil
Morocco and the Polisario Front have begun UN-sponsored talks in New York over the disputed Western Sahara.

Morocco claims sovereignty over the area, but the Algerian-based Polisario Front is campaigning for independence.

The two sides have not sat down for at least 10 years for such groundbreaking negotiations and several other countries are involved.

No mutually acceptable solution has been found during 32 years of "Africa's forgotten conflict".

The venue for the talks, the Green Tree Estate in Manhassat on Long Island, was previously used by the UN for border negotiations between Nigeria and Cameroon which eventually proved successful.

Whether these talks will also bear fruit is perhaps harder to predict.

It is difficult to see how the two parties can find a solution when the Polisario Front wants independence for western Sahara and Morocco does not.

In April, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 1754, which called for the two parties to hold unconditional talks to achieve "a mutually-acceptable political solution providing for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara".

Protests

Morocco, which annexed the territory in 1975, has offered an autonomy plan but still regards the region as integral to Morocco.

Map of dispute region
Polisario has always said it will consider nothing less than independence.

There has been an escalation in pro-independence demonstrations in recent weeks in Morocco, but the security services have reacted forcefully, in some cases injuring protesters.

The United States has put pressure on Morocco and Algeria to hold these talks because Washington wants to see greater co-operation in North Africa over combating terrorism.

But Rabat believes a Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara provides greater security in a region where porous borders make it easy for armed groups to operate.

The Western Sahara may look like barren land but it is rich in phosphates, fishing and potential oil reserves.

Those reasons, together with a deep sense of national pride, are why Morocco is unwilling to let it go.


SEE ALSO
In pictures: Africa's forgotten war
01 May 07 |  In Pictures
Polisario rejects autonomy plan
07 Nov 05 |  Africa
'Africa's last colony'
21 Oct 03 |  Africa
Regions and territories: Western Sahara
18 Aug 05 |  Country profiles

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