UN W. Sahara envoy starts first regional tour in Morocco

UN Western Sahara envoy in Morocco before visiting rival Algeria on first regional tour
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Algeria backs the independence-seeking Polisario Front and in August broke off relations with Morocco, which controls nearly 80 percent of the arid and sparsely populated Western Sahara.
New UN envoy Staffan de Mistura is a veteran Italian diplomat [Riccardo De Luca/Anadolu Agency/Getty-archive]

The UN said its new envoy for the disputed Western Sahara arrived in Rabat on Wednesday on the first stop of a tour that will also take him to Morocco's regional rival Algeria.

Staffan de Mistura, a veteran Italian diplomat, "began his first visit to the region and landed in Rabat today," United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in New York.

He will meet Moroccan officials in Rabat, and then Polisario officials in Tindouf, Algeria, an area housing Sahrawi refugees, Dujarric told a daily press conference.

Algeria backs the independence-seeking Polisario Front and in August broke off relations with Morocco, which controls nearly 80 percent of the arid and sparsely populated Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony.

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Tensions over the region rose after Algiers in November accused Morocco of killing three Algerians on a highway through the territory.

The same month, the head of the Polisario Front said it had decided to step up military operations, a year after a ceasefire with Morocco collapsed.

De Mistura was appointed in October, nearly two and a half years after the post became vacant as a dozen other candidates were rejected by either Morocco or the Polisario Front.

The envoy is also planning to visit Algiers and Nouakchott, Mauritania, to hear "the views of all concerned on how to make progress towards a constructive resumption of the political process on Western Sahara," Dujarric said.

A 1991 UN-monitored ceasefire deal had provided for a referendum on self-determination, but Morocco has since rejected any vote that includes independence as an option, offering only limited autonomy.

In 2020, the US administration of then-president Donald Trump recognised Morocco's sovereignty over the territory in a quid pro quo for Rabat's normalising ties with Israel.

Algeria said Washington's decision had "no legal effect".

A UN Security Council resolution late last year called for "the parties" in the Western Sahara dispute to resume negotiations "without preconditions".