Algeria, the main backer of Western Sahara’s Polisario Front independence movement, called on Morocco Thursday to withdraw from a key buffer zone, after the United Nations named a new envoy.
The UN on Wednesday named veteran diplomat Staffan de Mistura as its point man on the decades-old conflict, a job that had remained vacant for nearly two and a half years as the Polisario and Morocco rejected a dozen other candidates.
The Algerian foreign ministry noted “with interest” Mistura’s appointment, and called for the removal of Moroccan troops deployed late last year in the Guerguerat area in the far south of the territory.
They had been sent to reopen a key highway leading into Mauritania after it was blocked by Sahrawi activists who see it as violating a 1991 ceasefire deal.
The “demilitarization of this zone… is the cornerstone of any credible political process aiming to find a peaceful solution to the conflict,” the Algerian ministry said.
It said Algeria supported UN peace efforts and voiced hope that De Mistura could “relaunch direct, serious negotiations between the Polisario Front and the Kingdom of Morocco in order to reach a solution guaranteeing the Sahrawi people can freely and authentically exercise their inalienable right to self-determination.”
The UN sees the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, as a “non-autonomous territory,” but Morocco regards it as an integral part of its territory and insists its claim to sovereignty be recognized under any peace deal.
The kingdom controls some 80 percent of the largely desert territory, which has mineral reserves and access to rich Atlantic fisheries, as well as providing a potentially strategic trade route linking Morocco with West African markets.
Rabat has proposed a plan for autonomy but the Polisario insists on an independence referendum as called for under the 1990 ceasefire deal.
Morocco’s tense relations with Algeria have deteriorated since Rabat last year won Washington’s recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for normalizing ties with Israel.
Algeria on August 24 cut diplomatic relations with Morocco, accusing it of “hostile actions” including using Israeli technology to spy on its officials, charges Morocco dismisses.
A month later it banned Moroccan aircraft from its skies.