UNITED NATIONS (AFP) – UN leader Ban Ki-Moon called Monday for urgent international efforts to end the Western Sahara conflict because of fears the Mali war will spill over into the Moroccan-occupied territory.
Ban called on the UN Security Council to strengthen the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, where Morocco and the Polisario Front have been locked in a more than two-decade showdown over control.
“The rise of instability and insecurity in and around the Sahel requires an urgent settlement of this long-standing dispute,” Ban said in a report to the 15-member council.
UN envoy Christopher Ross has been holding new talks in the region in a bid to revive dialogue between Morocco and the Polisario Front.
“All governments consulted raised serious concerns over the risk that the fighting in Mali could spill over into neighboring countries and contribute to radicalizing the Western Saharan refugee camps,” Ban said.
One government leader in the region called the Western Sahara camps “a ticking time bomb,” the report said.
While the year-old conflict in Mali, where French-led international forces are battling Jihadist groups, dominates headlines, many African leaders consider Western Sahara to be the continent’s “forgotten conflict.”
Morocco started to annex Western Sahara in 1975 as Spanish colonizers withdrew. The Polisario took up arms demanding an independent state until the UN brokered a ceasefire in 1991.
Efforts to arrange a negotiated solution are in deadlock. The Polisario has demanded that the UN mission, MINURSO, carry out a promised self-determination referendum in the phosphate-rich territory. Morocco only agrees to broader autonomy.
Morocco last year briefly refused to hold talks with Ross. But the envoy has since been on his first official visit to Western Sahara where he reported meeting an increasingly frustrated youth, with no jobs and no sign of a breakthrough on the territory’s future.
Many youth “expressed support for radical courses of action such as resuming hostilitities against Morocco or asking MINURSO to recognize its impotence and depart,” said Ban’s report.
“Others warned that these frustrations made young people tempting recruitment targets for criminal and terrorist networks.”
Rights groups accuse Morocco of abuses in Western Sahara. Ban highlighted UN concerns over Morocco’s use of a military court to try 25 Sahara activists this year.
But MINURSO says it does not get enough access in Moroccan-controlled territory nor Polisario-run refugee camps.
The UN said Morocco had carried out 42 violations of the ceasefire accord, up from 25 last year. Four violations by the Polisario were reported, down from seven.
Most of the Moroccan violations were extensions to trenches and the construction of new military observation posts. Ban said there has been “a gradual shift in the military balance between the parties.”
The UN leader said 15 extra military observers were needed to halt “a gradual erosion of the authority of MINURSO.”
He also said Morocco and the Polisario must “engage in genuine negotiations” and “engage in a logic of give and take” because neither side will win everything.
Ban called on Morocco and Algeria to step up efforts to overcome their rivalry. Their frontier remains closed and Algeria traditionally backs the Polisario.
“The persistence of the conflict is a hindrance to greater Maghreb integration which is needed now more than ever in order to face the common challenge of increased instability and insecurity in the region,” said Ban.