Friday, June 29, 2007 at 21:00
UN appears to backtrack on autonomy proposal for Western Sahara
New York (dpa) - One day after backing a proposal for autonomy in the disputed Western Sahara region, the United Nations appeared to be backtracking Friday, saying it would reissue a report without mentioning the idea. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a report on Thursday saying that autonomy for Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony claimed by both Morocco and a group known as the Polisario Front, should be tested. But a UN spokesperson on Friday said the report would be rereleased without the paragraphs mentioning autonomy, raising questions as to whether Ban was pulling his support. "It was felt by all concerned that in this stage in the talks, it would be in the interests of the process for the UN secretary general's envoy to share observations and recommendations to the Security Council ... and to the parties directly within the negotiations themselves, rather than in a public report," said UN spokesperson Michelle Montas. Morocco has sought for decades to integrate the territory, while the Polisario Front, which fought Morocco decades ago, has called for an independent state. Diplomats said Morocco would now be willing to accept autonomy. The UN envoy to the talks, Dutch Ambassador Peter van Walsum, will instead brief the 15-nation council orally on the talks to settle Western Sahara, Montas said. Ban, in Thursday's report, called on both parties to be flexible and to make sacrifices, but appeared to say that one party was making greater sacrifices than the other, without elaborating. Ban said the Polisario should test Morocco's "readiness to take part in serious, constructive negotiations" to settle the dispute. "If the negotiations are to lead to a positive outcome, both parties must recognize that the question of sovereignty is, and always has been, the main stumbling block in this dispute, and it is in this highly sensitive area that a solution will need to be found," he said in the report to the council on Thursday. The UN Security Council had been calling for a referendum in Western Sahara to let the inhabitants there decide whether they would agree to integration with Morocco or let the once armed Polisario lead the territory as a new independent state. But the referendum, proposed more than a decade ago, never took place. Ban convened a meeting in mid-June attended by Morocco, the Polisario, Algeria and Mauritania under the mediation of van Walsum. He said the parties failed to agree on the definition of self- determination, which is considered the only way to settle their claim. Ban said although those parties respected the principle, their positions remained "far apart on the definition of self- determination." The council also had refused to impose a solution, calling for self-determination. The Polisario, which received support from Algeria in its armed conflict against Morocco decades ago, supported the referendum. Ban said a second round of talks is scheduled to begin on August 10.