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Talks to end Africa’s oldest dispute may be a mirage

A Sahrawi refugee, divided from her family by the dispute, Western Sahara, April 2007. The Sahrawi people are divided by minefields, army outposts and a manmade wall of sand more than 2,400 km long. There has been a long-standing dispute that pits the Mor
A Sahrawi refugee, divided from her family by dispute, Western Sahara (Rob Annandale/IRIN)

Delegations representing the belligerents in Africa’s longest-running territorial dispute have started doing something they have not done for many years: talk to each other.

Both parties recently made proposals for ending the conflict which are to serve as the starting point for UN-mediated talks being held in Manhasset, 27 km from New York City starting on Monday.

Yet an end to the 30-year dispute over this sparsely populated territory rich in phosphates, offshore fishing and possibly oil, may be nothing but a mirage, according to sources closely following the talks.

“The proposals have the character of ploys to impress the international gallery rather than opening moves in a sincere negotiation with the historic adversary,” according to an International Crisis Group report released last week. The report goes on to accuse leaders on both sides of wanting to preserve the status quo and roundly criticises the UN Security Council’s role saying it is perpetuating the stalemate.

The Algerian-backed rebel Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro, or Polisario Front began fighting for independence of the desert territory in the early 1970s when Western Sahara was still a Spanish colony.

The violence continued when Moroccan troops came down from the north in late 1975 and Spain withdrew a few months later.

In 1991 the UN brokered a ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario and set up the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), now the longest-serving peacekeeping mission in Africa.

The ceasefire largely held but MINURSO’s mandate, which was renewed for the 35th time last April, of organizing a referendum on the territory’s status is still a distant dream.

Morocco continues to claim historical rights over the desert territory while the Polisario continues to consider Western Sahara an independent nation.

Most of the territory’s population, which numbers between 200,000 and 300,000 have settled either in refugee camps in southwestern Algeria or in the towns of Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. Between the two communities is what is called the ‘berm’, a 2700 km-long wall of sand that has divided families for decades.

The conflict and intermittent droughts have also pushed the once predominantly nomadic population to become sedentary.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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