- Finally today, the cat was let out on Morocco's controversial plans for autonomy for the disputed territory of Western Sahara, which have been announced but kept secret for months. But also the exiled Sahrawi government, Polisario, today presented a "flexible solution" to the conflict to the UN.
Morocco's Ambassador to the UN, El Mostafa Sahel, this morning at nine o'clock in New York met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to hand over the elaborated Moroccan "autonomy plan" for Western Sahara. The plan has been announced for months, with Moroccan diplomats touring the world to sell it without presenting much detail.
Mr Sahel was not willing to give the press any details today either, leaving journalists and the public to wait for the unavoidable leaks expected from UN headquarters during the coming days.
The Moroccan ambassador however explained the unilaterally developed plan was for Morocco to "grant substantial autonomy to its Southern Provinces," internationally referred to as Western Sahara. "This initiative represents Morocco's response to ... the various calls ... in order to get out of the current stalemate and reach a final political solution to the Sahara conflict," Mr Sahel told the press.
Morocco hopes the autonomy plan will replace the many earlier settlements brokered by the UN and approved by the Kingdom. According to the agreements that assured a ceasefire in 1991, the Western Sahara dispute is a decolonisation issue, and the territory's original inhabitants are to have the right to decide their future on their own through a referendum.
In fact, a UN peacekeeping mission tasked with organising this referendum has been stationed in the Moroccan-occupied former Spanish colony since the 1991 ceasefire, but endless obstacles presented by Rabat assured the polls were never held. Morocco now says a referendum is totally out of the question and that autonomy is the most it can offer the territory.
Except for its major ally France and some African nations, Morocco has so far been internationally isolated in its view over the territory. No country has so far recognised Morocco's claims over Western Sahara, and the exiled Sahrawi government formed by the independency fighters Polisario is accepted as a full-fledged member of the African Union.
There are however signs that Rabat now has been able to break that isolation. According to Moroccan officials, both the French and the Spanish government have expressed their support to the autonomy plan. This is confirmed by the many pro-Sahrawi organisations operating in Spain, the former colonial power.
Spain earlier strongly backed Polisario's demands for a referendum, but the current socialist government of José Luis Rodrigo Zapatero has made a political u-turn and gives high priority to maintaining best possible ties to its southern neighbour, Morocco, in order to control immigration. This line is however strongly unpopular, and protest marches against the government's support of Morocco's autonomy plan are announced all over Spain for 14 and 21 April.
Also the exiled Sahrawi government has long ago announced its non-approval of the Moroccan plan, saying Rabat's unilateral approach beyond earlier agreements is jeopardising the ceasefire and even threatening with renewed warfare. Polisario refers to its old mantra, self-determination for the Sahrawis.
In an effort to meet the Moroccan diplomatic initiative, Polisario representatives today presented their own plan to the UN. Sahrawi President Mohamed Abdelaziz in a statement today announced that the Polisario plan had been presented to the UN, but also he would give no details.
According to Mr Abdelaziz, the Polisario proposition was "aiming to realise a just and lasting peace in our region." He added that it was "a flexible and constructive project" that guaranteed the rights of the Sahrawi people "through a self-determination referendum."
According to UN spokeswoman Maria Okabe, Secretary-General Ban is to study the two plans. After making his comments and recommendations, he is to send them over to the UN Security Council, which is scheduled to discuss the Western Sahara conflict on 20 April. Mr Ban said he hoped the parties would thus "find a mutually acceptable solution."
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