UN renews Western Sahara mission ahead of talks

©Agence France-Presse

UN efforts have failed to resolve the conflict over Western Sahara, where Morocco and the Polisario fought a war that ended in 1991; Polisario activists are demanding an independence referendum

United Nations (United States) (AFP) - The UN Security Council on Wednesday threw its weight behind planned talks on Western Sahara as it voted to extend for six months its decades-old mission in the disputed north African territory.

The council adopted a US-drafted resolution that renewed the mission, known as MINURSO, until April 30, setting a deadline for progress in the push to relaunch political talks.

The resolution was adopted by a vote of 12 in favor in the 15-member council. Russia, Ethiopia and Bolivia abstained. 

Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and the Polisario Front have accepted a UN invitation to hold talks in Geneva December 5-6 that could pave the way to formal negotiations on ending the conflict.

These meetings will be the first held on Western Sahara since 2012.

The United Nations has repeatedly failed to broker a settlement in Western Sahara, where Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario fought for control from 1975 to 1991. 

One of the UN's oldest missions, MINURSO was deployed in 1991 to monitor a ceasefire and organize a referendum on the status of the territory.  That vote however never materialized.

A settlement in Western Sahara would allow the United Nations to consider a pullout of MINURSO at a time when the United States, the UN's number one financial backer, is seeking to reduce the cost of peace operations.

US Deputy Ambassador Jonathan Cohen told the council that the United States will not allow the Western Sahara conflict "to slip into the shadows" and warned that MINURSO may be on the chopping block.

"Further renewals will not be automatic," said Cohen.

France, which has friendly ties with Morocco, had pushed for a one-year renewal of the mission to allow the new diplomatic effort to take hold, but in the end bowed to US insistence for a shorter extension.

"Shortening mandates seems to us to be a false good idea, without any real impact on the political process," French Ambassador Francois Delattre told the council.

The resolution welcomed the decision of the four parties to attend "without preconditions and in good faith" the Geneva talks convened by UN envoy Horst Koehler, a former German president.

Morocco however continues to maintain that negotiations on a settlement should focus on its proposal for autonomy for Western Sahara while the Polisario insists that the status of the territory -- a former Spanish colony -- should be decided in a referendum on independence.