UN envoy hoping to break impasse

Published: Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 2:12 a.m.

ALGIERS, Algeria-- The U.N. secretary-general's special envoy to the Western Sahara arrived in Algiers on Wednesday hoping to break an impasse in the search for a political settlement to the Western Sahara dispute.

James A. Baker III, a former U.S. secretary of state, was presenting a new proposal for peace in the vast, mineral rich-region claimed by neighboring Morocco and the Polisario Front rebel movement.

Baker met Moroccan King Mohammed VI on Tuesday in Agadir, Morocco and on Thursday was to travel to Tindouf, in southern Algeria, where the Polisario is based. He also was to go to Mauritania, which borders the Western Sahara, during his four-day trip.

Algerian Foreign Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem greeted Baker on his arrival ahead of talks with Algerian officials.

The details of the new initiative were not disclosed.

"I presented some proposals to his majesty," Baker said in a brief statement after leaving the royal palace in Agadir on Wednesday.

"I could characterize the talks as constructive," he said, without providing further information.

Baker is in his fifth year of trying to negotiate a solution to the conflict that has been an impediment to North Africa's effort to build a unified region to bolster economic development.

The United Nations managed to bring the two sides to a cease-fire accord in 1991 ahead of a referendum on the future of the Western Sahara. However, Morocco and the Polisario contested who was eligible to cast ballots and the referendum never took place.

U.N. spokeswoman Hua Jiang said last week that Baker "will present and explain to the parties and neighboring countries a proposal for a political solution of the conflict ... which provides for self-determination."

An intermediary solution had emerged by which a large autonomy would be accorded to Western Sahara, which would remain under Moroccan sovereignty. Morocco has supported the autonomy plan, but the Polisario Front has insisted on a referendum.

Morocco is adamant about keeping the region, the former Spanish Sahara, which it annexed in 1975 and now refers to as its "southern provinces." It fought a costly war with the Polisario that ended with the cease-fire.

The 15-member U.N. Security Council has extended a peacekeeping mission -- about 240 uniformed personnel -- in the territory until Jan. 31 to give Baker time to find an acceptable solution. The mission could be renewed again.

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