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Morocco's king makes rare visit to Western Sahara

Morocco's King Mohammed VI pledged to pursue several public works projects to help the desert territory
This is King Mohammed’s only his third visit to Western Sahara since his succession the throne in 1999 (AFP)

Morocco's King Mohammed VI has vowed that revenues from the mineral-rich Western Sahara will be invested locally, on a rare visit to the disputed territory.

He spoke late Friday in the territory's main city Laayoune, to mark 40 years since hundreds of thousands of Moroccan civilians marched across the border with the then-Spanish colony to claim it.

The Green March, as it was called, triggered war with the Algerian-backed Polisario Front, which had been campaigning for independence for the territory since 1973. The Polisario Front continues to advocate independence to this day.

This is King Mohammed’s only his third visit to Western Sahara since his succession the throne in 1999. He described the Green March as "a watershed moment in the process of completing the kingdom's territorial integrity".

He named several public works projects that plan to get implemented to improve the area’s infrastructure, including a desalination plant and industrial zones.

He promised "revenues from natural resources will continue to be invested in the region, for the benefit of the local populations and in consultation and coordination with them".

On Saturday night, during a televised ceremony in Laayoune, the king announced a 7.2-billion-euro development plan for the region.

But King Mohammed also renewed Morocco's claim to sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

A UN-brokered ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario has held since 1991, but UN efforts to organise a referendum on the territory's future have been resisted by the king.

Morocco has offered a relative degree of autonomy but flatly refuses to make any more concessions.

"Those who are waiting for any other concession on Morocco's part are deceiving themselves. Indeed, Morocco has given all there was to give," the king said in Laayoune.

The Polisario Front controls a small part of the desert interior of the Western Sahara but its main base is in Tindouf across the border in Algeria, where tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees also live in desert camps.

The king lashed out at Algiers for not doing more for the refugees.

"The people in Tindouf... continue to suffer from poverty, despair, deprivation and the systematic violation of their basic rights," he said.

On Wednesday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for negotiations in the coming months to finally settle the Western Sahara dispute.

"This conflict must be brought to an end if the people of the region are to meet their shared challenges and achieve their full potential," Ban said.

He said he had asked his envoy Christopher Ross to intensify efforts to bring Morocco and the Polisario to the negotiating table.