By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) - France signaled on Friday it would push to modify a U.S. proposal to the United Nations to allow U.N. peacekeepers to monitor human rights in the disputed Western Sahara before deciding which way it would vote.
The dispute, dating back to 1975, pits Morocco, which says the Western Sahara is its territory, against the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, which says it is an independent state.
Morocco and France, its former colonial master, have resisted the idea that the peacekeepers should report on rights abuses in Western Sahara, a sparsely populated tract of desert that has phosphates, fisheries and, potentially, oil and gas.
The U.S. draft resolution to the Security Council, designed to extend the mandate of the U.N. mission in Western Sahara for another year, was circulated this week to the so-called Group of Friends on Western Sahara, which includes the United States, France, Spain, Britain and Russia.
"It (modifying the text) is one of the possible options and the object of discussions taking place," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot told reporters. "We are not at the stage today to say whether we will vote for or against it."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned that the conflict in Mali, where France deployed troops and air power to oust Islamist rebels, threatens to spill into Western Sahara, with the possibility of infiltration by foreign militants.
Paris may have decided to soften its position given the crisis in Mali. Indeed, President Francois Hollande, in a trip to Morocco at the start of the month, said the situation in the Sahel region meant that there was "greater urgency" to resolve the Western Sahara problem.
Paris, Morocco's traditional protector on the 15-nation U.N. Security Council, has previously vetoed resolutions on the issue, supporting Rabat unconditionally.
But diplomats said on Thursday that it was unlikely this time to use its veto to block the U.S. draft.
Lalliot said Paris' general position was unchanged.
"We believe that the status quo is in the interest of nobody and we have supported for a long-time a fair, lasting and mutually agreeable solution. We have always said we support the Moroccan autonomy plan, which is as a serious and credible solution," Lalliot said.
He said that given the reaction of Morocco, a temporary Security Council member, those who had put forward the text would need to evaluate how it could be modified to see how Rabat could approve it.
The U.S. resolution prompted Rabat to cancel planned joint U.S.-Moroccan military exercises in response. It has dispatched diplomats to all the countries negotiating the text in the hope of derailing or softening the resolution, officials said.
"This is endangering the whole region and the negotiation process," Moroccan government spokesman Mustapha Khalfi said.
The idea of making U.N. human rights monitoring one of the tasks of the U.N. peacekeeping mission for Western Sahara, known as MINURSO, is something Morocco opposes but rights groups and the Polisario have long advocated.
A vote on the resolution is due by the end of April.
The United Nations brokered a settlement in 1991 with the understanding that a referendum would be held on the fate of the region. The referendum never took place and attempts to reach a lasting deal since then have foundered.
(Additional reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi in Rabat; Editing by Alison Williams)
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