U.N. Envoy: African Rebels Should Drop Dreams of Statehood


ImageBy BENNY AVNI

Staff Reporter of the Sun
April 22, 2008

UNITED NATIONS — Secretary-General Ban’s envoy to the Western Sahara region is attempting to introduce « political reality » to one of the most intractable disputes on the United Nations’ agenda by suggesting that the territory’s breakaway rebels drop their dream of becoming independent from Morocco.

Although Morocco and America are backing Peter van Walsum of the Netherlands, several countries in the region are opposing his stance. That opposition led Mr. Ban to present the U.N. Security Council yesterday with a more traditional U.N. position in an attempt to appeal to all sides.

As a result, the council heard two contradicting views on Western Sahara yesterday, one signed off on by Mr. Ban and the other presented by his envoy. Mr. Ban’s report urged continued negotiations « without preconditions » between Morocco and the rebels of Western Sahara, dropping Mr. van Walsum’s suggestion.

Western Sahara, which has been under Moroccan control since 1975, is a source of constant skirmishes between Rabat and the pro-independence Sahrawi movement, known as the Polisario, and its chief supporter, Algeria. The United Nations has led efforts to find a political solution for decades, without much success, and Morocco recently suggested that Al Qaeda operatives and other terrorist groups have infiltrated the province.

The sides should negotiate « on the assumption that there will not be a referendum with independence as an option and that, therefore, the outcome will necessarily fall short of independence, » Mr. van Walsum wrote in a four-page unofficial proposal faxed yesterday to the 15 members of the Security Council, just prior to a similar oral report. While some members of Mr. Ban’s inner circle initially signed off on the envoy’s conclusion, others were livid and convinced the secretary-general to drop the conclusion from the official report.

The South African ambassador to the United Nations, Dumisani Kumalo, called the U.N. secretariat’s reporting process « very odd. » Council members « were presented a report in writing that seemed to contradict what was in the report of the secretary-general, » Mr. Kumalo, who is serving as president of the council this month, told reporters. The idea that the « Polisario must become realistic and realize that they might not achieve their goal of independence » sets a dangerous precedent, he added. « Hey, if we are also in that business, we should also tell the Palestinians to forget it and let them be realistic. » Mr. van Walsum, a top U.N. envoy in Western Sahara since 2005, « spent a lot of time focusing on this issue, and he brought forward frank analysis and suggestions, and those are very much worthy of serious consideration, » the American ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, said. The French ambassador, Jean-Maurice Ripert, said his government supports a Moroccan initiative similar to the one Mr. van Walsum outlined.

A pro-Polisario diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity, however, said Mr. van Walsum may have been seeking to create a pretext to resign from his post. Separately, another Arab diplomat sympathetic to the Polisario said Mr. van Walsum’s attempt to present his « personal view failed, because the only basis for negotiation in the future will be Mr. Ban’s official report. »

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