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Stalemate in Western Sahara negotiations

Standoff as both Morocco and Polisario claim resource-rich desert territory.

Demonstrators show support for self-determination and independence for Western Sahara, in downtown Madrid on Nov. 15, 2008. (Susana Vera/Reuters)

RABAT, Morocco — Rivals in one of Africa’s oldest territorial feuds met for talks in Austria recently but longtime observers of the battle to control Western Sahara say the fight is far from over.

The borders of the Great Britain-sized swath of desert remain in dispute and half its population lives in Algerian refugee camps. Morocco claims the territory as its own; an Algerian-backed guerilla group representing the 125,000 displaced people, the Polisario Front, wants a referendum on independence.

Representatives of both parties met in the Austrian town of Duernstein on Aug. 10 and 11, pledging little more than to keep talking. United Nations organizers called the outcome an improvement over the last round of talks, which broke down in 2008.

"The discussions took place in an atmosphere of serious engagement, frankness and mutual respect," said Christopher Ross, the U.N.'s mediator in the conflict, in a statement after the latest meeting. "The parties reiterated their commitment to continue their negotiations as soon as possible.”

Morocco seized the territory after Spain gave it up in 1975. Morocco’s then-king, Hassan II, orchestrated a mass march in which 350,000 unarmed Moroccans crossed the border in a symbolic move to stake a claim on the phosphate-rich region, with which both Morocco and Mauritania asserted historical ties. Morocco and the Polisario waged a small-scale guerilla war over the land until the U.N. brokered a ceasefire in 1991. While the ceasefire was supposed to bring with it a referendum on the territory’s future, Morocco has blocked the vote. The government has presented instead a plan for the country to become an autonomous region within Morocco. While the Polisario has held out for a vote on independence for region’s residents, known as Saharawis, Moroccan officials insist the productivity of future talks depends on the group abandoning this goal.

“Compromise and realism excludes independence,” said Morocco’s communication minister Khalid Naciri. “Morocco is already there and Morocco has a historical claim on the land. Creating a sixth state in North Africa opens the door to instability.”

While Naciri called the latest round of negotiations more fruitful than the last, longtime observers of the conflict say they’re skeptical either side has much incentive to give ground.

“Morocco isn’t going to budge on self-determination and Polisario hasn’t shown any interest in power-sharing,” said Jacob Mundy, a specialist on the dispute with Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.