(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Morocco rejects latest UN peace plan

Map of Western Sahara.

Morocco has rejected the latest UN plan to find a political solution to the 27-year-old conflict in Western Sahara, that offers the inhabitants of the former Spanish colony a referendum on independence within five years.

Western Sahara, a desert territory south of Morocco's official border, was annexed by Morocco in 1976 after Spain withdrew its colonial adminsitration, but the Algeria-based Polisario guerrilla movement has been fighting since then for it to become an independent state.

Morocco's state news agency MAP said on Thursday that the foreign ministry had renewed the major objections it had been expressing about UN proposals to resolve the dispute since February 2003.

The latest peace plan, drawn up by former US Secretary of State James Baker, provides for a referendum in four to five years time. This would offer the inhabitants of Western Sahara the choice between independence, autonomy within Morocco or complete integration with Morocco.

The plan was accepted by Polisario last month and approved by the UN Security Council earlier this week.

Who exactly should be allowed to vote in a referendum has been a source of constant argument. Morocco would like its own settlers in the territory to be eligible, whereas Polisario would like to exclude most Moroccan settlers, but include Western Sahara refugees living in other countries, particularly Algeria.

Under the Baker plan, those able to vote in the referendum would be people over the age of 18 who had been continuously resident of Western Sahara since 1999. A provisional voter's list drawn up by the UN Mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO) in December that year would form the basis for the new electoral roll.

People whose names appeared on a repatriation list drawn by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) as of 31 October 2000 would also be eligible to vote.

The plan also proposes that an autonomous Western Sahara Authority (WSA) be responsible for local government, territorial budget, taxation, economic development, internal security, law enforcement, transportation, agriculture, mining, fisheries, socio-cultural affairs, education and other basic infrastructure during the run-up to the referendum.

Morocco would remain responsible for foreign relations, national security, external defence and all matters relating to the production, sale and ownership or use of weapons during this period.

Unlike earlier UN proposals, the new plan does not require the consent of both parties at every step of its implementation.

Extending the mandate of the UN Mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO) on Thursday, the Security Council called on the parties to work with the UN and with each other towards acceptance and implementation of the Baker peace plan.

It also reaffirmed its call for Polisario to release, "without further delay" all its remaining prisoners of war in compliance with international humanitarian law. It called on both parties to cooperate with International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to resolve the fate of persons unaccounted for since the beginning of the conflict.

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