Western Sahara talks to move forward

The first talks in six years on the disputed Western Sahara region ended in deadlock Thursday, with key players Morocco and the Polisario Front pledging to meet again early next year.

The two sides remained at loggerheads over the prospects of an independence referendum, something demanded by Polisario, but an option categorically rejected by Rabat.

The negotiations on the decades-long conflict were being led by United Nations envoy Horst Koehler and included Morocco, the Polisario Front, along with Algeria and Mauritania.

“A peaceful solution to this conflict is possible,” Germany’s former president told reporters in Geneva at the end of the two-day meeting, while announcing that all sides had agreed to meet again “in the first quarter of 2019”.

The international community has long intended for a referendum to be held to decide the status of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, on the western edge of the vast eponymous desert, stretching around 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) along the Atlantic coastline, a prime fishing region.

When Spain withdrew from the North African territory in 1975, Rabat sent thousands of people across the border and claimed it was an integral part of Morocco.

The following year the Polisario Front declared Western Sahara the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), with support from Algeria and Libya, and demanded a referendum on self-determination.

Morocco has always rejected the prospect of a vote in which independence is an option and reinforced that position on Thursday.

“A referendum is not on the agenda,” Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita told reporters.

“If we are ready for a compromise then the option is there and autonomy is on the table,” he added.

The head of the Polisario delegation, Khatri Addouh, told reporters that autonomy requires allowing people “to make choices about their own fate.”

“As far as we are concerned, the most democratic way to do that is through a referendum in which the Sahrawi will have the opportunity to choose among various options,” he said.

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