Algiers, March 16, 2016 (AFP) – A referendum on the future of the disputed territory of Western Sahara holds the key to peace and stability in North Africa, the pro-independence Polisario Front said Wednesday. The former Spanish territory has been back in the spotlight after UN chief Ban Ki-moon angered Morocco by using the word “occupation” to describe its status. “There will be no peace or stability in the region so long as the Sahrawi people are denied the right to self-determination,” Mohamed Salem Ould Salek, a leader of the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, told a news conference in Algiers.
He said that Morocco “knows full well that the Sahrawi people will choose independence if a referendum is held”. “We are not Moroccans and we refuse to become Moroccans,” he said. The resources-rich Western Sahara is at the centre of a four-decade-old dispute. Morocco considers the territory to be part of the kingdom and insists its sovereignty cannot be challenged. The United Nations has been trying to broker a Western Sahara settlement since 1991 after a ceasefire was reached in a war between Rabat and the Polisario Front that broke out when Morocco deployed its military in the territory in 1975 after Spain’s withdrawal.
A self-determination referendum was to have been held in 1992 but has been repeatedly called off. Ban, who visited a Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria in early March, told Morocco’s foreign minister on Monday that protests held in Rabat against his remarks on Western Sahara had been disrespectful. Ban “expressed his deep disappointment and anger regarding the demonstration… which targeted him in person,” said a UN statement released after a meeting with Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar in New York.
The UN chief “stressed that such attacks are disrespectful to him and to the United Nations”. Hundreds of thousands of people carrying banners denouncing Ban’s “lack of neutrality” on Western Sahara took to the streets of Rabat on Sunday. Ban plans to visit Rabat and Laayoune, the main city in Western Sahara, later this year and aims for progress in resolving the conflict before he steps down at the end of 2016
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