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By Patrick Beleka, WSahara Solidarity, 19 February 2009
The new UN envoy to the disputed Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, on Thursday held talks with Moroccan officials to obtain new negotiations over the territory over which Rabat claims sovereignty.
Ross was in a "listening position" while meeting Morocco's Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri and senior officials of the royal consultative council for Saharan affairs (CORCAS), an informed source told AFP.
The Polisario Front independence movement has disputed Morocco's claim to the territory since the north African kingdom annexed it after the withdrawal of Spanish settlers in the mid-1970s.
Ross arrived in Rabat on Wednesday after officials at UN headquarters in New York warned against great expectations of a first mission on which the new envoy was to sound out a chance of resuming negotiations.
On Tuesday, Moroccan Communications Minister Khalid Naciri said "Christopher Ross will find in Morocco the same openness of mind and the same good faith requested by the (UN) Security Council to move the negotiation process forward."
That process, he added, "must pick up from where his predecessor (Peter Van Walsum) left off."
Van Walsum, whose UN mandate was not renewed after it expired on August 21, was accused of favoring Morocco after stating that independence for Western Sahara was "an unrealistic option."
Ross's week-long tour will take him from Rabat to Tindouf in the southwest Algerian desert, for talks with Polisario chief Mohamed Abdelaziz, and then to Algiers, according to UN spokeswoman Michele Montas.
Montas said in a statement that Ross, a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria, will leave Algiers on February 25 for Madrid and then Paris, capitals of two countries belonging to the Group of Friends of Western Sahara.
The group also includes Russia, Britain and the United States.
For more than three decades, Tindouf has been home to Sahrawi refugees from the Western Sahara, a phosphate-rich territory whose annexation by Morocco after the withdrawal of the colonial power sparked a war with the Polisario.
The two sides agreed a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991 but a referendum on self-determination and talks in New York have long been stalled.
Ahmed Bujari, the Polisario's UN representative, said last week that his group reiterated to Ross, who took up his post last month, that "we are dealing with an issue of self-determination in the framework of UN Security Council resolutions.
"It's up to the people of Western Sahara to choose their future," he added.
The UN Security Council has called for talks "without preconditions and in good faith" between the parties to achieve "a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution."
Rabat has offered a form of autonomy for the territory under Moroccan sovereignty while the Polisario wants a referendum on self-determination that would include the option of full independence.