- In his last action on Western Sahara as UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan today told Sahrawis they should drop their demand for negotiating with Morocco that there must be a referendum with independence as an option. The UN has recognised Western Sahara's right of self-determination and an independence referendum for thirty years.
Morocco and the Western Sahara's exiled Polisario government should "drop any preconditions and begin negotiations" to try to find a lasting solution to their long-standing conflict Mr Annan says, calling in a report for a six-month extension of the UN's peacekeeping mission in the disputed territory.
Such preconditions – Morocco's demand that its sovereignty over Western Sahara be recognised and Polisario's demand that there must be a referendum with independence as an option – "can be discussed within the negotiations instead," Mr Annan says in his latest report to the UN Security Council on the work of the UN Mission, known as MINURSO.
"Obviously such demands could be raised by the respective parties in the course of the negotiations," Mr Annan writes. "[But] such negotiations will not get off the ground unless the Security Council makes it absolutely clear that the exercise of self-determination is the only agreed aim of the negotiations."
The UN's Security Council and its General Assembly on uncountable occasions have treated Western Sahara as a decolonisation case, and since the Moroccan occupation in 1975, it has demanded a referendum over independence among Sahrawi citizens. Morocco and Polisario also have signed several agreements handing over the organisation of such a referendum to the UN, which has constituted the mission of MINURSO for 15 years.
A call for the Sahrawis to give up their that there must be a referendum with independence as an option will undoubtedly provoke the Polisario leadership, whose President Mohamed Abdelaziz only on Sunday had sent a message of congratulations to the new UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, reminding him of the Sahrawis' "legitimate right to self-determination and independence in accordance with the UN Charter."
Further in Mr Annan's last report on Western Sahara before he steps down at the end of this year, he warns that new fighting could erupt in the disputed territory. Mr Annan said Polisario leaders had told his Personal Envoy to Western Sahara, Peter van Walsum, that they preferred continued impasse to unconditional talks, "realising full well that this could only lead to renewed armed struggle."
"Some of them added that even if the leadership of the Polisario Front should continue to call for restraint, the pressure of frustrated young Sahrawis who wanted to fight might become impossible to resist," the report warned. Most of the Saharawi population has been living in desolate conditions in three refugee camps close to the Algerian desert town of Tindouf for three decades.
Given the role MINURSO plays in maintaining the ceasefire, Mr Annan recommended that its mandate be extended until 30 April 2007, six months beyond its current expiration date. MINURSO was established in 1991 to monitor the ceasefire and organise a referendum on self-determination in the former Spanish colony.
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