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Algeria urges W. Sahara settlement at March talks

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  • Algeria urges W. Sahara settlement at March talks

    Algeria urges W. Sahara settlement at March talks
    Tue 26 Feb 2008, 15:58 GMT

    ALGIERS, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Algeria hopes Morocco and Western Sahara's independence movement agree an end to Africa's oldest territorial dispute at talks next month, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said in remarks published on Tuesday.

    Boutefika, whose country is the main supporter of the Polisario Front independence movement, said Algeria wanted the "decolonisation" of mineral-rich Western Sahara, annexed by Morocco in 1975 when colonial power Spain withdrew.

    U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a report that Polisario and Morocco remained far apart at their third round of talks on Jan. 7-9 on ways to achieve a settlement.

    But the two sides agreed to hold a fourth round from March 11-13 at the same location in Manhasset town near New-York.

    "I hope that the fourth round of negotiations reaches a political solution based on self-determination of the people of Western Sahara," government-run newspaper El Moudjahid quoted Bouteflika as saying.

    "Algeria remains committed to the strict implementation of the doctrine of the U.N. in the field of decolonisation and supports efforts by the international community to implement these principles and complete the decolonisalisation of Western Sahara," he said.

    The dispute, a pillar of Moroccan-Algerian rivalry, is a barrier to commerce across the Maghreb region of 80 million people stretching from Mauritania to Libya and makes it unlikely the region will achieve its goal of a free trade area by 2010.

    The latest series of talks, the first negotiations in years between the two sides, are intended to settle the status of the former Spanish colony of 260,000 people, which has phosphates, fisheries and potentially oil.

    A U.N. ceasefire agreement in 1991 promised a referendum on the fate of the territory, but it never took place and Rabat now says autonomy is the most it will offer. No country recognises Moroccan rule over the territory.

    Morocco wants the talks to be limited to how to provide self-rule for the territory under Moroccan sovereignty. Polisario proposes a referendum among ethnic Sahrawis that would include an option of independence.

    An estimated 158,800 Sahrawi refugees live in camps in the Algerian desert where malnutrition is widespread.

    Bouteflika made his remarks in a letter to Polisario leader Mohamed Abdelaziz to mark the 32th anniversary of Polisario's proclamation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. The government in exile is a member of the African Union. (Reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed; editing by Matthew Tostevin)