Tue, 23 Jul 2019

A UN envoy is set to host an "initial round-table" in Geneva this week between Morocco and the Polisario Front in a bid to kick-start dialogue on the disputed Western Sahara region.

"It is time to open a new chapter in the political process", said UN envoy Horst Koehler in an October invitation letter.

Six years after direct talks broke down, the meeting is expected to take place on Wednesday and Thursday, with neighbouring Algeria and Mauritania also attending.

A former Spanish colony, phosphate-rich Western Sahara sits on the western edge of the vast eponymous desert, stretching around 1 000 kilometres along the fish-abundant Atlantic coastline.

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 to resolve the dispute.

But as the stalemate continued, Morocco built razor-wire-topped concentric sand walls in the desert that still ring 80% of the territory it controls.

A 1991 ceasefire saw the UN deploy a peacekeeping mission which has perpetuated the line of control, but the international community has long intended a referendum be held to decide the territory's status.

Rabat currently rejects any vote in which independence is an option, arguing that only granting autonomy is on the table and that this is necessary for regional security.

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