By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) - Failure by the United Nations to let peacekeepers monitor human rights in the disputed Western Sahara risks pushing the region toward armed conflict, a senior official from the Polisario Front independence movement said on Monday.
The dispute over Western Sahara dates back to 1975 and pits Morocco, which claims the region is part of its territory, against the Algeria-backed Polisario.
The United Nations brokered a ceasefire settlement in 1991 with the understanding that a referendum would be held on the region's fate. But the referendum never took place and attempts to reach a lasting deal have foundered.
Now, a group of countries including the United States, France, Spain, Britain and Russia is reviewing a U.S. draft resolution that would extend the mandate of U.N. peacekeepers on the ground by a year, with a human rights monitoring mission.
Polisario accuses Morocco of routine human rights violations in Western Sahara and has called for the MINURSO peacekeepers to have the authority to conduct human rights monitoring.
While allegations of abuse have lessened since a 1975-1991 war, rights groups like Amnesty International accuse Morocco of continuing to use excessive force against demonstrators and activists and repressing political freedom, among other abuses.
"If the U.N. does not take this seriously to ensure self-determination and that human rights are respected, then we are heading towards a war with regional implications," Omar Mansour, a member of the Polisario's National Secretariat decision-making body told Reuters.
A vote on the resolution is due by the end of April.
A Britain-sized tract of desert that has lucrative phosphate reserves and potentially offshore oil, Western Sahara is the scene of Africa's longest-running territorial dispute.
Europe and the United States say their worry is that the conflict is souring relations between Morocco and Algeria and preventing them from working together against Islamist violence.
Rights groups have long pushed for adding human-rights monitoring to the tasks of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, but Morocco is opposed.
Morocco and France, its former colonial ruler, have resisted the idea of peacekeepers reporting on rights abuses in Western Sahara, with Paris a long-time supporter of Rabat due to historical ties and business relations.
However, diplomats have said that France is unlikely to use its veto power to block the U.S. draft resolution.
Instead, talks are under way to modify the proposal after Morocco - a temporary Security Council member - reacted angrily to the text, dispatching diplomats to all countries involved in an effort to soften or derail it.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned that the conflict in Mali, where France deployed troops and air power to oust Islamist rebels, threatens to spill into Western Sahara.
Such fears may be tempering French support of Morocco.
President Francois Hollande, whose Socialist Party has closer ties to the Polisario than the previous government, said in Morocco this month that the situation in the Sahel meant there was "greater urgency" to solving the Western Sahara problem.
Mansour said he doubted Islamist militants would infiltrate Western Sahara, but there was a risk of young Western Saharans taking up arms to fight against Morocco.
(Reporting By John Irish; Editing by Michael Roddy)