BEIRUT

Middle East

Morocco, opposition group clash over UN envoy

RABAT, Morocco: A top Moroccan official says the U.N. envoy to the disputed Western Sahara has failed in his mission, calling Friday for the U.N. secretary general to take the "necessary measures" so talks can resume in an impartial atmosphere.

The remarks by Youssef Amrani, the No. 2 at the Moroccan Foreign Ministry, are the closest the government has come to calling for the firing of Christopher Ross, a former U.S. diplomat charged with resolving a dispute that has run since 1976 when Morocco took over the mineral-rich former Spanish colony and annexed it.

In 1991, a truce between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front - fighting for the independence of the Western Sahara - opened the way for U.N.-brokered talks on a referendum for self-determination.

Amrani - speaking to a local radio station, in an interview carried by the state news agency - said Ross "did not advance negotiations," and he hoped United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon would take the "necessary measures" because he "cannot continue working in such a climate of partiality that characterized the negotiations."

Morocco said Thursday it had withdrawn its confidence in Ross, saying he was biased and violated his mandates by listening too closely to the Front.

U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky defended Ross' position Friday, saying "the secretary-general has complete confidence" in him. It is unclear, however, what the future of the talks will be if Morocco refuses to deal with Ross.

The United Nations announced Friday that Ross has no plans to travel to Western Sahara "at this time." Ross had said previously that he planned an "extensive" visit there in mid-May.

For its part, the Polisario condemned Morocco's allegation as unfounded and arbitrary, and the latest effort by Morocco to prevent a solution to the 36-year-old dispute.

"This decision is a new, intolerable challenge by Morocco to the international community, the secretary general of the U.N. and the Security council," the group said in a statement.

The U.N. secretary general said last month that after nine rounds, the talks were at a stalemate. Morocco has called for wide-ranging autonomy instead of a referendum, a position rejected by the Polisario.

Much of Morocco's ire with Ross, who was once the U.S. ambassador to Syria, appears to stem from his last report to the secretary general in April, in which he called for greater powers for the U.N. peacekeeping force of about 230 military personnel, known as MINURSO, including gathering information on human rights.

The U.N. is supposed to be helping the Western Saharans prepare for an often-postponed vote on self-determination.

The report said Moroccan interference has undermined the peacekeeping force's appearance of independence and prevented people from freely contacting them.

The report also raised the possibility of Moroccan eavesdropping, saying there were "indications that the confidentiality of communications between MINURSO headquarters and New York was, at least on occasion, compromised."

Tajeddine Husseini, a professor of law at Mohammed V University in Rabat, pinpointed Ross' report and the efforts to expand the role of MINURSO as behind the Moroccan anger.

"The decision was expected after the last report of Ross was biased, lacking credibility and objectivity and exceeding the framework given by the Security Council," the professor told the state news agency.

The future of the Western Sahara is an extremely sensitive issue for Morocco and seen as a case of national sovereignty. It is very difficult to express opinions contrary to those of the state.

According to the weekly Maroc Hebdo on Friday, Moroccan Foreign Minister Saadeddine al-Othmani first expressed his dissatisfaction to the U.N. over Ross on May 11.

 

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