- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A new Moroccan plan to grant substantial autonomy to its restive Western Sahara region offers the best chance to end a damaging stalemate with neighboring Algeria and resolve Africa’s oldest territorial dispute, a top Moroccan diplomat said yesterday.

“This is a plan that can create a new reality not just for Morocco but for the North Africa region and for the United States, the African Union and Europe,” said Taib Fassi-Fihri, Morocco’s minister-delegate for foreign affairs and cooperation.

“In the context of the challenges we all face in the Arab world, from radicalism, terrorism and al Qaeda, it would be extremely useful for everyone to have this problem resolved,” he said in an interview.

He noted that on the day he was visiting Washington, a group linked to al Qaeda claimed responsibility for a series of bomb attacks against police stations in Algeria, killing six persons and underscoring the threat of militant Islamist forces in the region.

Mr. Fassi-Fihri was in Washington to brief U.S. officials on the “negotiated autonomy” plan, approved by King Mohammed in December after extensive consultations with the country’s leading political parties and social groups.

It aims to end a territorial dispute dating back to 1975, when Morocco took control of the sparsely populated but resource-rich Western Sahara after colonial power Spain withdrew. That triggered an armed clash with the Algerian-backed separatist Polisario Front, which claims to be defending the rights of the region’s nomadic Saharawi people.

A U.N.-negotiated cease-fire ended the shooting war in 1991, but Algeria and the Polisario Front never recognized Morocco’s claim and a planned self-determination referendum for the Western Sahara has been blocked repeatedly.

Mr. Fassi-Fihri said the dispute with Algeria has created serious obstacles to the region’s economic development and its ability to unite on common problems. Refugees from the fighting in Western Sahara remain in camps on the Algerian side of the border about 32 years after the fighting first erupted.

“Our border with our neighbor is totally closed off. It is an incredible situation,” Mr. Fassi-Fihri said.

Mohamed Salem Ould Salek, foreign spokesman for the Polisario separatist government in exile, sharply rejected the new Moroccan autonomy plan earlier this month.

“The occupier’s plan is null and void. It is stillborn,” he told reporters in Algiers.

But Moroccan officials say they have received a good hearing in Washington and European capitals. French President Jacques Chirac called Rabat’s proposal “constructive” earlier this month after a visit from the Moroccan delegation.

Mr. Fassi-Fihri said Moroccan officials plan to refine the proposal after gauging international reaction and present a concrete proposal to the U.N. Security Council in April, when a vote is scheduled to extend the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara.

He said Morocco could impose the autonomy proposal on its own, but wanted a solution that had U.N. backing and that addressed the refugee question.

“This is not a tactical move but a strategic approach from us to deal with all the problems holding back our region,” he said.

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