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Western Sahara UN envoy says 'encouraged' after first meetings

© RYAD KRAMDI/AFP/File | Horst Kohler (L), the UN envoy for Western Sahara, in an October meeting with Brahim Ghali (R), secretary general of the Algerian-backed Polisario Front which is pushing for an independence referendum in the disputed territory

UNITED NATIONS (UNITED STATES) (AFP) - 

Fresh from a regional tour to discuss the dispute over Western Sahara, the new UN envoy said Wednesday he was "encouraged" but did not announce plans for new political talks.

Former German president Horst Koehler was appointed in August as special envoy to lead a new UN push for talks between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front on Western Sahara.

After briefing the Security Council behind closed doors, Koehler told reporters "I am encouraged" but declined to provide details.

"We know it's a very complex issue but there was a kind of constructive attitude in all the interlocutors he met," said Italian Ambassador Sebastiano Cardi, who is council president this month.

The council adopted a resolution in April that calls for kick-starting talks on a settlement following a tense standoff last year between Moroccan troops and Polisario fighters in Guerguerat, a remote area in Western Sahara near Mauritania.

Morocco and the Polisario fought for control of Western Sahara from 1974 to 1991, with Rabat taking over the desert territory before a UN-brokered ceasefire in the former Spanish colony.

Rabat considers Western Sahara an integral part of Morocco and proposes autonomy for the resource-rich territory, but the Polisario Front insists on a UN referendum on independence.

The Polisario's UN representative, Ahmed Boukhari, said the new envoy will need "stronger support" from the council if he is to make progress.

Boukhari accuses France of backing Morocco in the dispute and preventing the council from putting pressure on Rabat.

After traveling to Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania during his first tour, Koehler is now weighing "the next steps," said Cardi.

The United Nations opened negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario in 2007 and there have been several rounds since, with the latest held outside of New York in 2012.

There has been little progress however toward a settlement.

© 2017 AFP