US to open consulate in disputed Western Sahara, Pompeo says
The United States has started the process of establishing a consulate in Western Sahara, just weeks after Donald Trump formally recognised Morocco's claim to the disputed territory.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Thursday that the US was "inaugurating a virtual presence post for Western Sahara, with a focus on promoting economic and social development, to be followed soon by a fully functioning consulate".
A "virtual presence post" allows US consular officials and staff to conduct remote diplomatic engagement without maintaining a physical location in a designated city or region.
The announcement comes just weeks after the Trump administration agreed to recognise Morocco's claim to Western Sahara as part of a US-brokered deal that saw Morocco and Israel agree to establish formal diplomatic relations.
Morocco is the fourth country to sign a normalisation deal with Israel under a US-brokered agreement in the past few months, after the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.
The first direct commercial flight from Israel to Morocco took place this week, with a joint US-Israeli delegation leaving Tel Aviv and landing in Rabat on Tuesday.
Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, led the delegation along with Israel's National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat.
'Historic turning point'
In a statement earlier this month, Morocco's King Mohammed VI said Washington's recognition of the country's claim to the region was an "historic turning point" and described the normalisation deal with Israel, which was denounced by Palestinians, as a "promising development for peace in the Middle East".
Moroccan forces and the Polisario Front, an independence movement in Western Sahara, have been fighting over the territory - a vast area bordering Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria that contains huge reserves of mineral resources - for decades.
Morocco laid claim to the territory after Spain's colonial rule ended in 1975, whereas the Polisario Front saw this as an affront to its own sovereignty.
Washington's recognition of Morocco's claim to the area drew condemnation from the Polisario Front, which slammed it as "a blatant violation of the United Nations charter and the resolutions of international legitimacy".
Pompeo said the US continues to support a Moroccan proposal to grant limited autonomy to Sahrawis under overarching Moroccan control.
"The United States looks forward to this increased engagement and we will continue to support political negotiations to resolve the issues between Morocco and the Polisario within the framework of Morocco's autonomy plan," Pompeo said in Thursday's statement.
The UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have all recently announced plans to open diplomatic missions in Western Sahara.
Some 15 African states have also opened consulates in Western Sahara. Zambia and Eswatini opened theirs in October.
Western Sahara, though a sparsely populated desert region, has rich fishing waters, phosphate deposits and Morocco's only working land route into the rest of Africa, as its border with Algeria is closed.