UN chief calls for de-escalation of Western Sahara hostility

UN chief says Western Sahara situation has 'significantly deteriorated', calls for de-escalation
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The UN chief says a clear risk of escalation remains as he calls on the parties to de-escalate the situation and immediately cease persisting hostilities
Guterres says that the resumption of hostilities between Morocco and Frente Polisario is a major setback towards achieving a political solution [Getty]

The situation in Western Sahara has "significantly deteriorated" over the past year, the UN Secretary-General has said, citing the resumption of hostilities between Morocco and the Polisario independence movement in the disputed territory.

Morocco views Western Sahara as an integral part of its territory, but the Polisario -- recognised internationally as the representative of the Sahrawi people -- has long sought independence.

The "resumption of hostilities between Morocco and Frente Polisario is a major setback toward the achievement of a political solution," Antonio Guterres said in a report submitted to the Security Council.

"There remains a clear risk of escalation while hostilities persist," he added in the report, not yet published and obtained by AFP on Saturday.

"I therefore call on the parties to de-escalate the situation and immediately cease hostilities."

Guterres said the two sides must agree on the appointment of a UN envoy to restart political dialogue on Western Sahara.

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The Polisario fought a war of independence with Morocco from 1975 until a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991.

The conflict has continued to simmer, and has been without an emissary since May 2019, with all candidates proposed by Guterres rejected by one side or the other.

In his report, Guterres noted that in November 2020, the Polisario had announced -- after incidents with Morocco -- that it no longer felt committed to the ceasefire.

In December 2020, then-president Donald Trump broke with previous US positions and recognised Morocco's sovereignty over the whole of Western Sahara.

President Joe Biden has yet to comment on that move.

At the end of August, Algeria -- Morocco's neighbour and rival, and a key backer of the Polisario -- broke off diplomatic relations with Rabat, particularly over Western Sahara.

Polisario wants a UN referendum on self-determination, while Morocco -- which controls more than two-thirds of the former Spanish colony -- has proposed a plan for Polisario autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty.