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UN peacekeeping chief to visit disputed Western Sahara

The U.N. peacekeeping chief said Tuesday he is heading to the disputed Western Sahara later this week to visit U.N. troops for the first time since Morocco expelled more than 70 U.N. civilian staffers in March to protest comments by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Herve Ladsous told a group of reporters after briefing the Security Council that he will visit Layoune, the largest city in Western Sahara, as well as camps for Sahrawi refugees in neighbouring Tindouf, Algeria, and the Moroccan capital, Rabat.

He will be the highest-ranking U.N. official to visit the region since early March when Ban used the word "occupation" in talking about Morocco's involvement in Western Sahara during a visit to a refugee camp in Tindouf. That led to demonstrations against Ban in Morocco and the government's decision to expel U.N. civilian workers.

Morocco annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, in 1975 and fought a local independence movement called the Polisario Front. The U.N. brokered a ceasefire in 1991 and established a peacekeeping mission known as MINURSO to monitor it and help prepare a referendum on the territory's future, which has never taken place.

Morocco considers the mineral-rich region its "southern provinces" and has proposed wide-ranging autonomy, but the Polisario Front insists on self-determination through a referendum for the local population.

The Polisario Front's foreign relations chief, Ould Salek, warned earlier this month that the group is closer to resuming confrontation with Morocco than to peace.

Salek accused France, which has close ties to Morocco, of blocking Security Council action on Western Sahara and urgently appealed to council members to hold the referendum on the territory's future. He expressed hope that the United States and the other permanent council members — Russia, China and Britain — will do more than they have to ensure a referendum is held.

But Uruguay's U.N. Ambassador Elbio Rosselli said there was "no outcome" from the closed council meeting, and expressed regret that members have been unable to agree on even simple statements on Western Sahara.

"The political process is at a complete stalemate," he said. "The parties are not talking."

Rosselli said the secretary-general's personal envoy to Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, has been unable to arrange a visit to the region. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said later: "A trip for Mr. Ross is still under discussion."

Ban will be in Morocco to attend the 22nd U.N. Climate Conference in Marrakesh that starts on Nov. 7. Rosselli said he is expected to visit Rabat at that time.