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UN chief wants Western Sahara talks soon

The UN has been trying to broker a settlement for Western Sahara since 1991
United Nations Secretary General Ban ki Moon (AFP)

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Wednesday for negotiations in the coming months to settle the frozen conflict over Western Sahara, at the centre of tensions between Morocco and other African countries.

"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 in a statement.

The UN chief said he had asked his envoy Christopher Ross to intensify efforts to bring Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front to the table.

"I urge all concerned within the region and within the broader international community to take advantage of my personal envoy's intensified efforts to facilitate the launching of true negotiations in the coming months," he said.

The United Nations has been trying to broker a settlement for Western Sahara since 1991, after a ceasefire was reached to end a war that broke out when Morocco sent troops to the former Spanish territory in 1975.

Ban said that after 40 years, the situation in Western Sahara "is becoming increasingly alarming".

Local Sahrawi people are campaigning for the right to self-determination but Morocco considers the territory as a part of the kingdom and insists that its sovereignty cannot be challenged.

The Sahrawi have a long-standing demand for a referendum to be held on statehood.

The African Union, which recognises the Sahrawi Arab Republic as a member, views the dispute as an example of unfinished decolonisation on the continent.

The call for negotiations on a final settlement came as UN officials said Ban was planning a visit to the territory.

Ban hopes that such a visit can advance peace efforts before his term as secretary-general ends in December 2016.

The conflict over Western Sahara has been among the most sensitive issues on the UN agenda, with Rabat fiercely rejecting any challenge to its hold on the mineral-rich territory.

After falling out of favour with Morocco, UN envoy Ross was able to resume his diplomatic efforts in February, making his first regional visit in more than a year.

Morocco accused Ross in 2012 of being partial in the dispute but last year shifted its stance and said it was ready to support his mediation following a phone conversation between Ban and King Mohammed VI.

Relations with Morocco have been frayed over human rights and Ban has called for UN monitors to be sent to Western Sahara.

The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) operation is the only UN mission that does not have a mandate to report on human rights violations.

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