UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution Friday evening backing the secretary-general's new effort to resolve the 40-year conflict over the Western Sahara, which has pitted Morocco against the Polisario Front independence movement.
The resolution was adopted shortly after Secretary-General Antonio Guterres confirmed that Polisario Front fighters had withdrawn from the town of Guerguerat in the buffer zone on the Morocco-Mauritanian border, which had become the latest flashpoint in the conflict.
Morocco annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, in 1975 and fought the Polisario Front. The U.N. brokered a cease-fire in 1991 and established a peacekeeping mission to monitor it and to help prepare a referendum on the territory's future that has never taken place.
Morocco considers the mineral-rich Western Sahara its "southern provinces" and has proposed giving the territory wide-ranging autonomy. The Polisario Front insists on self-determination through a referendum for the local population, which it estimates at between 350,000 and 500,000.
The resolution affirms the Security Council's "full support" for the secretary-general's commitment to relaunch negotiations "with a new dynamic and a new spirit," aimed at reaching "a mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara..."
It calls on the parties to hold a fifth round of negotiations "without preconditions and in good faith."
The resolution extends the mandate of the U.N. mission in Western Sahara, known as MINURSO, until April 30, 2018.
The Guerguerat crisis began in August, when Morocco started work on a road in the area which Rabat said was needed to stop contraband. The Polisario Front protested and deployed armed forces, saying the road work violated the cease-fire accord. Morocco denied breaking the accord. At Guterres' request, Morocco pulled out of Guerguerat in February but the Polisario Front didn't heed his appeal until late this week.
The Security Council had been set to echo Guterres' appeal and express concern at the Polisario Front's refusal to leave in the resolution, but that language was dropped at the last minute after the statement on the pullout.
Guterres' spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the Polisario Front's pullout "should improve the prospects of creating an environment that will facilitate early implementation of the secretary-general's determination to relaunch the negotiating process."
The final draft also dropped language that would have had the council welcome Morocco's 2007 autonomy proposal while only taking note of the Polisario Front's proposal for self-determination in a referendum. The resolution now takes note of both proposals.
In March 2016, Morocco expelled over 70 U.N. civilians carrying out political activities, de-mining operations and other activities for MINURSO after the secretary-general Ban Ki-moon used the word "occupation" in talking about Western Sahara following a visit to a camp for refugees from the region who have been in Algeria for over 40 years.
Language in an early draft emphasizing "the urgent need for MINURSO to return to full functionality" and expressing regret at its inability to fully carry out its mandate was dropped.