- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Morocco upbeat

The ambassador from Morocco insists that his nation is prepared to open negotiations with no preconditions with former rebels of the Polisario Front over the future of the disputed Western Sahara, but the separatist movement says talks are useless unless the kingdom agrees to a referendum on independence.

“With Monday’s unanimous vote by the United Nations Security Council, the kingdom of Morocco stands ready to engage in serious, direct and good faith negotiations,” Ambassador Aziz Mekouar said.

The Security Council urged both sides to agree to U.N.-sponsored talks aimed at achieving a political solution to the three-decade-old dispute for control of the mostly desert region that contains lucrative phosphate deposits and abundant fishing grounds off its Atlantic coast.

Morocco exerted what it cited as historical claims over the region in 1975 when Spain ended its colonial control of the Western Sahara and opposes independence for the sparse population of about 260,000. It has proposed plans for autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty.

Mr. Mekouar said the Security Council resolution was an endorsement of Morocco’s position.

“We have offered a meaningful framework for a compromise,” he said. “Our initiative provides a concrete and credible response to the principle of self-determination and the opportunity to end 30 years of hardship and family separation.”

However, Ahmed Boukhari, the Polisario’s U.N. envoy, told the Associated Press in New York that the talks will go nowhere if Morocco refuses to discuss a referendum on independence.

“We are ready to engage now, but for something credible,” he said.

Mr. Mekouar, mindful of U.S. congressional concerns about terrorism in North Africa, noted the importance of bringing security to the region bounded by Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania.

“Our initiative to negotiate a political settlement that is acceptable to all has the potential to … enable the necessary cooperation among states to fight the risk of increased terror in the region,” he said.

Last week, 180 members of the House signed a letter to President Bush, urging him to support the Moroccan plan for autonomy.

“With al Qaeda and other terrorist groups expanding their presence into North Africa, we are concerned that the failure to resolve this conflict of more than 30 years poses a danger to U.S. and regional security,” they said.

Meanwhile, 45 House members signed a letter to support independence for the Western Sahara.

Dodge and weave

A top Indian diplomat batted away reporters’ attempts to pry details from him about talks this week with U.S. officials over plans to supply India with technology to help India’s civilian nuclear program.

“That’s one. … That’s two. … That’s three,” said Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon said in a press conference, as he dodged repeated attempts to rephrase questions about his meetings Monday and Tuesday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs.

Not even flattery helped, as an Indian reporter praised his diplomatic skills and then posed another version of the same question.

Mr. Menon stuck to his script about the “broad discussion” on “several areas where we think we can cooperate.”

He insisted he would not negotiate in public, especially in a press conference.

Mr. Menon announced that Mr. Burns agreed to travel to India later this month to continue the talks.

“It has been a very productive, very useful two days in Washington,” he said.

Mr. Menon praised Miss Rice, whose “own contributions have been considerable.”

“A lot would not have been possible without her guidance,” he added, noting the “transformation” in U.S.-India relations over the past two years.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison@ washingtontimes.com.

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