Ross hints at mounting pressures: Western Sahara solution more urgent than ever
RABAT - UN envoy Christopher Ross said on Thursday that a solution to the decades-old Western Sahara conflict was "more urgent than ever" after meeting top Moroccan officials on a visit aimed at reviving stalled peace talks.
"In Rabat, I am starting a new tour dedicated to searching for a solution to the Western Sahara question, in line with successive (UN) Security Council resolutions," he told reporters after talks with Foreign Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani.
"The situation in the Sahel region and its vicinity makes a solution more urgent than ever," he said.
Ross said he also had "in-depth" meetings with Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane and Morocco's two parliament speakers "on the best way of moving the negotiating process forward."
According to the latest report published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its offshoots in the Sahel are already working to expand their partnership with smugglers from massive refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, and to enlist recruits among the disenchanted youth there. If Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb strengthened its alliance of convenience with the Polisario, a formidable terrorist organization could emerge."
Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front have held numerous rounds of UN-hosted informal talks on the disputed Western Sahara territory, but Ross halted these last year with both sides refusing to make concessions.
The UN envoy is due to meet Interior Minister Mohand Laenser before travelling on Friday to Laayoune and then Dakhla, the territory's two main cities.
His two-week trip will also take him to Algeria, including to Sahrawi refugee camps in the western Tindouf region, and Mauritania, and comes amid heightened insecurity in the Sahel region, with ongoing unrest in northern Mali.
Ross will present a report to the UN Security Council on April 22.
Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975, and has proposed broad autonomy for the phosphate-rich territory under its sovereignty.
But this is rejected by the Polisario Front, which insists on the right of the Sahrawi people to a referendum on self-determination and launched its struggle for independence even before the annexation.
A guerrilla war lasted until 1991 when the United Nations brokered a ceasefire, but a permanent settlement remains elusive.