Source: Associated Press
By JOHN THORNE
RABAT, Morocco (AP) – Morocco is willing to negotiate details of its proposed autonomy plan for Western Sahara with the independence-seeking Polisario Front, Morocco’s Interior Minister said Friday.
Morocco has resisted past offers by Polisario to engage in talks over the fate of the desert territory.
Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa told reporters the plan was “largely open to negotiation” and stressed that Morocco would not press ahead with it without the agreement of the United Nations and Polisario.
He said the plan’s language was purposefully broad to allow for open debate with Polisario. Previously, Morocco has said it would implement the plan with U.N. approval even if Polisario objected.
The Moroccan plan, submitted Wednesday to the U.N. Security Council, would create a regional government in Western Sahara to oversee day-to-day affairs.
But the Moroccan state would retain control of major areas such as defense, foreign relations and customs. Western Sahara would continue to use the Moroccan flag, currency and stamps and would recognize King Mohamed VI as the highest religious authority in the land.
On Tuesday, Polisario called for an independence referendum and offered to forge a “special relationship” with Morocco should it lead to a sovereign Saharawi state.
Benmoussa called Polisario’s proposal a stalling tactic designed to sow confusion. “We consider autonomy the only way out” of the conflict, Benmoussa said.
Morocco has been keen to promote its plan, but its submission to the U.N. was overshadowed by three suicide bombings Tuesday in Casablanca, the kingdom’s commercial capital.
Morocco and Mauritania split Western Sahara in 1975 after former colonizer Spain ceded them the territory. Full-scale war broke out the following year with Polisario, an Algerian-backed independence movement founded in 1973 to contest Spanish rule. Mauritania withdrew its troops in 1979, but Morocco continued fighting until the United Nations brokered a cease-fire in 1991.
The United Nations installed a peacekeeping mission to organize an independence referendum, but it has foundered on disagreement over voter lists. In 2003, Morocco rejected a U.N. plan, accepted by Polisario, that envisaged temporary autonomy followed by a referendum in which both Saharawis and Moroccan settlers would vote.
Morocco has annexed most of Western Sahara, where Moroccan settlers now outnumber an estimated 90,000 Saharawis by more than two to one. Saharawi and international human rights groups complain of regular abuses by Moroccan police against pro-independence activists.
Some 160,000 Saharawi refugees live in Polisario’s bleak camps in southwest Algeria and depend on foreign aid. The Moroccan and Polisario armies still face off across a desert no man’s land.
The conflict poisons relations between regional big-hitters Morocco and Algeria, which the U.S. wants working together against terrorism.