UN Western Sahara envoy kicks off new tour to resume talks
RABAT - The UN envoy on the Western Sahara Christopher Ross met Moroccan officials in Rabat on Wednesday at the start of a new two-week tour of the region aimed at reviving peace talks to end the decades-old conflict.
The tour, which will take Ross to the Western Sahara, Algeria and Mauritania, comes amid heightened insecurity across the Sahel region, making a solution to the conflict "more urgent than ever," UN spokesman Eduardo del Buey said before the trip.
Ross held talks with Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, a journalist reported, and also met parliamentary speaker Karim Ghellab.
Later this week, he will to travel to Laayoune and Dakhla, the main cities in the Western Sahara, only his second visit to the disputed territory since he was appointed in 2009, according to UN sources.
Changes to the regional security situation have vindicated "the position of Morocco, which has long drawn the attention of the international community to dangers of this region," Ghellab was quoted as saying by state media.
Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front separatists have held numerous rounds of UN-hosted informal talks on the Western Sahara, but Ross halted these last year with both sides refusing to make concessions.
A group of five key countries on Tuesday urged the two sides not to block efforts by the UN envoy to renew direct negotiations.
"The Group of Friends on Western Sahara encouraged the parties to show flexibility in their engagement with the personal envoy and each other, in the hopes of ending the current impasse and achieving progress towards a political solution," said a statement released by the United States, France, Spain, Britain and Russia.
Morocco said last year it no longer had confidence in Ross, accusing him of bias, but has since agreed to hold talks with the US diplomat.
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.