UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has recommended the extension, by two months, of the UN mission in Western Sahara in order to give time to the conflicting parties to consider a recent UN-backed settlement plan.
Annan's recommendation was contained in his latest report to the Security Council on the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). MINURSO's mandate was set to end on 31 January, following a six-month extension in July 2002. The Tuesday recommendation would extend the mandate to 31 March.
"The Secretary-General recalls that James A. Baker III, his personal envoy...traveled to the region just last week to present and explain the proposal to the parties and neighbouring countries," the report said. "Every possible option has been presented to the parties, aimed at reaching an agreed solution. I urge [the parties] to keep in mind the years of suffering this long-standing question has caused to thousands of innocent people in the Territory, in refugee camps and who remain prisoners of war," Annan said.
Baker- former US Secretary of State- traveled on 14-17 January to Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania where he met with the heads of state and submitted the new plan. In Western Sahara, he met with the secretary general of Polisario, sources told IRIN on Wednesday.
The UN deployed MINURSO in 1991 to try and resolve dispute over territory. MINURSO's mandate included the monitoring of the ceasefire between- Morocco and the Polisario Front- and organising a referendum on the territory. The mandate has been extended on several occasions. However while the UN has been able to maintain the peace, it has been unable to organise elections.
The Western Sahara conflict broke out in 1975 when Morocco annexed the territory after Spain withdrew from what had been hitherto a Spanish colony. This led thee Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia-el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario Front) to take up arms. In 1991, the Polisario and Morocco signed a ceasefire agreement, paving the way for UN intervention.
Several settlement plans have been proposed but all have proved unacceptable to the two sides. One of the main bone of contention concerns eligibility to vote in a referendum. Meanwhile the conflict continues with Polisario Front demanding self-determination for the territory and Morocco insisting that Western Sahara is part of the kingdom.