Former US Secretary of State James Baker has resigned as the UN special envoy to the Western Sahara after trying without success for seven years to broker a political settlement for the desert territory which has been occupied by Morocco since 1976.
His departure was announced in a UN statement issued over the weekend.
Baker's latest peace plan, put forward last year, provided for the former Spanish colony to be given self-rule for a period of four to five years. After that, its long-term residents and the 165,000 Western Sahara refugees who have spent nearly 30 years living in camps in neighbouring Algeria would be allowed to vote on its future in a referendum.
Baker proposed that those entitled to take part in the referendum be given the option of full integration with Morocco, continued autonomy within the framework of the Moroccan state or independence.
His plan was accepted by the Polisario movement, which has been fighting for the independence of the Western Sahara since Spain withdrew its colonial administration, but it was rejected by Morocco, which according to diplomats is anxious to avoid any loss of sovereignty.
The Moroccan government said in a statement that it regreted Baker's decision to quit and praised his efforts in trying to find a political solution to the Western Sahara dispute.
A communique issued by the Polisario movement said the US elder statesman's decision to resign "constitutes a serious setback to the UN's efforts....to resolve in a fair and peaceful way the last decolonisation issue in Africa."
The United Nations has been trying to mediate a solution to the conflict since Morocco and the Polisario movement agreed to a truce in 1991.
Over the past 13 years, the United Nations has spent over US$600 million on peace efforts. These have included the maintenance in the territory of a special UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, known by its Spanish acronym, MINURSO.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked the Security Council in April to prolong MINURSO's mandate for a further 12 months. But, demonstrating its frustration at lack of progress in the peace mediation efforts, the Council only agreed to a six-month extension until 31 October.
Baker, who is now 73, served as Secretary of State under George Bush senior, the father of the current US president. Before that, he served as presidential chief of staff and Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
He was appointed as Annan's personal envoy to the Western Sahara in March 1997.