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Talks on disputed Western Sahara territory convene in Austria

Talks convene in Austria on Monday aimed at resolving a 34-year-old territorial dispute between Morocco and the Polisario Western Sahara independence movement that officials say is undermining efforts to tackle an al Qaeda-linked insurgency.

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Morocco and the Western Sahara independence movement Polisario meet Monday in Austria for formal talks over the disputed territory, which is slightly bigger than Britain and with a population of less than 500,000 people.

 

The objective of the talks is to organise a fifth round of official negotiations meant to reach a consensus on the status of the former Spanish colony.

 

Morocco says it is ready to grant “great autonomy” to what it has considered one of its southern provinces since Spain withdrew in 1975.

 

Polisario wants to organise a referendum on its status that includes the possibility of independence for the Western Sahara.


A chance to break the stalemate

 

After the failure of four previous rounds of negotiations that were held in Manhasset, New York in 2007 and 2008, it is hoped that the current international environment will allow the Austrian talks to break the stalemate.

 

“Today, there are converging elements that could incite optimism,” said Kader Abderrahim, a researcher at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris.

 

“Among these elements is a new US administration,” said Abderrahim. “President Barack Obama’s approach to international relations is much more accepting of multilateralism than that of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

 

“In addition, the threat of terrorism in North Africa has led Morocco and Algeria [which supports Polisario] to value regional cooperation.

 

Finally, Morocco is proposing much greater autonomy for the Western Sahara than it has in the past. The kingdom is proposing a status similar to that of Catalonia or the Basque country in Spain.”

 

The appointment of a new United Nations envoy to the region, Christopher Ross, in January has also added to the momentum. A respected veteran diplomat who speaks Arabic fluently, Ross knows the region well, having served as US ambassador to Algeria and as director of the American culture centre in Fes, Morocco.

 

His predecessor, Peter Van Walsum of the Netherlands, had vexed Polisario and Algeria by qualifying independence for the Western Sahara as unrealistic.

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