- Associated Press - Thursday, December 6, 2018

GENEVA (AP) - The U.N. secretary-general’s envoy for Western Sahara on Thursday wrapped up the first talks in six years over the future of the territory mostly controlled by Morocco, saying the sides have agreed to meet again early next year.

Former German president Horst Koehler hailed “a first, but an important, step” toward resolving a decades-old standoff between Morocco and the independence-minded Polisario Front.

He spoke Thursday after two days of talks involving a top Polisario envoy and the foreign ministers of Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania over the future of the phosphates-rich territory that is larger than Britain and whose long coastline offers attractive fishing prospects.

“From our discussions, it is clear to me that nobody wins from maintaining the status quo,” Koehler said, expressing hopes for the emergence of “environment in the region that is conducive to strong growth, job creation and better security.”

“My conviction remains that a peaceful solution to this conflict is possible,” he said in prepared remarks, declining to take questions from reporters after the talks at the U.N. in Geneva. “I look forward to inviting the delegations to a second round-table meeting in the first quarter of 2019.”

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric, asked for reaction from Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said: “Discussions that took place in an atmosphere of serious engagement, frankness and mutual respect, and the fact that the delegation agreed with Mr. Kohler to come back for a second round is something that is clearly a positive step forward.”

Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975 and fought the Polisario Front until the United Nations brokered a cease-fire in 1991 and set up a peacekeeping mission to monitor it.

Morocco has proposed wide-ranging autonomy for Western Sahara, while the Polisario Front insists the local population, which it estimates at 350,000 to 500,000, has the right to a referendum on the territory’s future that was called for in the cease-fire but has never taken place.

The talks come in the wake of a U.N. Security Council resolution that passed 12-0 in October and extended the peacekeeping mission until April 30 next year - a shorter renewal that some had hoped for.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita hailed “good progress” even though there was no breakthrough, but warned that the momentum could still falter.

“We have to be pragmatic: If we are ready for a compromise, Morocco is there - and an autonomy plan is on the table,” he said. “If we would like to make the process an end in itself, we should be careful because I think this momentum is not granted and this momentum will have an end if there is no political will.”

Kathri Addouh, the delegation chief for the Polisario Front, said he remained “rather hopeful” about the talks and insisted that the Sahrawi people have the right to self-determination. He also raised questions about the role of the European Union for its deal-making with Morocco over fishing rights.

“We do regret that the European Union is in the process of renegotiating agreements in terms of partnerships in fisheries with Morocco in a way that violates in particular the rulings of the European Court of Justice,” he told reporters.

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