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By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council renewed a peacekeeping mission in disputed Western Sahara on Thursday after the United States backed down in an annual battle with Morocco, backed by France, over whether peacekeepers should monitor human rights abuses.
In an apparent compromise, the unanimously approved U.S.-drafted resolution encourages "the parties to continue in their respective efforts to enhance the promotion and protection of human rights in Western Sahara and the ... refugee camps."
A Security Council diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the resolution contained more rights language than in previous years and was a "step forward."
The peacekeeping mission, known as MINURSO, was extended for one year.
For decades Morocco has insisted that Western Sahara should come under its sovereignty, but the Algeria-backed Polisario Front independence movement contends it is a sovereign state.
Morocco holds about 80 percent of the territory - a sparsely populated tract of desert with phosphates and, potentially, oil and gas - and the Polisario the rest, including refugee camps.
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.
Polisario's U.N. representative, Ahmed Boukhari, said it welcomed the U.S. push for human rights monitoring, but that the resolution adopted on Thursday did not take the issue forward.
"They (the United States) decided by unknown reasons to back off," he said. "Nevertheless, we appreciated the U.S. intentions and their idea should be maintained on the radar."
French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said the best way to improve the human rights situation in Western Sahara was through bilateral talks with Morocco.
"There has been a steady improvement in the situation of human rights in Western Sahara thanks to the decisions taken by Morocco. There is room for improvement but we do think that we can follow up through our dialogue with Morocco," Araud told reporters after the vote.
The United Nations brokered a ceasefire settlement in 1991 between Morocco and the Polisario with the understanding that a referendum would be held on the region's fate. But the vote never took place and attempts for a lasting deal have foundered.
Human Rights Watch U.N. director Philippe Bolopion said that the U.S. push for human rights monitoring had put Morocco "on notice that its rights record in Western Sahara will come under renewed scrutiny."
"The United States should continue to press for an extension of MINURSO's mandate to cover human rights, with the support of its allies who failed to speak up this time," he said.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Vicki Allen)