UN renews peacekeeping mandate amid pessimism

The UN Security Council voted on Friday not to give up on its peacekeeping mission in the disputed territory of Western Sahara but black clouds continue to hang over talks on the three decade-old problem.

The new UN envoy, Peter van Walsum, announced that the positions of the key players were "quasi-irreconcilable" after holding a series of meetings earlier this month with the leaders of Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and the Polisario Front.

Nevertheless, the Security Council accepted UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's recommendation of a 28th mandate extension for the mission, known as MINURSO, despite its lack of concrete progress and US $650 million price tag to date.

"The deadlock between the parties over how to achieve a mutually acceptable solution that would enable the people of Western Sahara to exercise their right to self-determination has persisted," Annan said in his report on the territory this month.

The Polisario Front has been demanding independence since before Spain withdrew from its former colony on Africa's northwest coast in 1976, only to be replaced by Morocco in the north and Mauritania in the south.

While Mauritania gave up its territorial claims in 1979, Morocco has held on to a territory rich in phosphates, fish stocks and, perhaps, offshore oil.

Following the 1991 ceasefire, MINURSO began preparations for the referendum on independence which was to be held the following year. But endless disagreements over wording and procedure have meant that, 14 years later, there is still no vote in sight.

As the dispute lingers on, so do the difficult conditions for both the inhabitants of the territory and the more than 150,000 refugees in camps in western Algeria whose government supports the Polisario Front.

"I am concerned by the allegations of human rights abuses made by the parties, whether in the territory or in the Tindouf area refugee camps," Annan said in his report.

One bright spot highlighted by Annan was the Polisario Front's release in August of its last 404 Moroccan prisoners, some of whom had been detained for over 20 years.

In 2003, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker proposed a settlement plan which called for a four- or five-year period of autonomy after which there would be a referendum on integration into Morocco, continued autonomy or outright independence.

The so-called Baker Plan was accepted by the Polisario Front but rejected by Morocco. After seven years of trying unsuccessfully to broker a solution to the dispute, Baker resigned last year.