A Moroccan air force helicopter crashed Friday in disputed Western Sahara, killing two crew members, state news agency MAP reported.
One other person on board was slightly injured in the crash, a military source told MAP, adding that a “technical investigation” had been launched to determine the cause of the incident near the settlement of Tichla.
The Moroccan military has a heavy presence in the swathes of Western Sahara it controls.
It maintains that Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony under its control, is an integral part of its territory.
The Polisario Front, which campaigns for the territory’s independence, demands a referendum on self-determination.
The Polisario Front liberation movement and Morocco fought a war over the region from 1975 to 1991, when a ceasefire deal was agreed and a UN peace mission deployed to monitor the truce in the former Spanish colony.
The UN Security Council on Wednesday threw its weight behind planned talks on Western Sahara as it voted to extend for six months its decades-old mission in the disputed North African territory.
The council adopted a US-drafted resolution that renewed the mission, known as MINURSO, until April 30, setting a deadline for progress in the push to relaunch political talks.
The resolution was adopted by a vote of 12 in favor in the 15-member council. Russia, Ethiopia and Bolivia abstained.
Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and the Polisario Front have accepted a UN invitation to hold talks in Geneva December 5-6 that could pave the way to formal negotiations on ending the conflict.
These meetings will be the first held on Western Sahara since 2012.
The United Nations has repeatedly failed to broker a settlement in Western Sahara, where Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario fought for control from 1975 to 1991.
One of the UN’s oldest missions, MINURSO was deployed in 1991 to monitor a ceasefire and organise a referendum on the status of the territory. That vote however never materialised.
A settlement in Western Sahara would allow the United Nations to consider a pullout of MINURSO at a time when the United States, the UN’s number one financial backer, is seeking to reduce the cost of peace operations.
US Deputy Ambassador Jonathan Cohen told the council that the United States will not allow the Western Sahara conflict “to slip into the shadows” and warned that MINURSO may be on the chopping block.
“Further renewals will not be automatic,” said Cohen.
France, which has friendly ties with Morocco, had pushed for a one-year renewal of the mission to allow the new diplomatic effort to take hold, but in the end bowed to US insistence for a shorter extension.
“Shortening mandates seems to us to be a false good idea, without any real impact on the political process,” French Ambassador Francois Delattre told the council.
The resolution welcomed the decision of the four parties to attend “without preconditions and in good faith” the Geneva talks convened by UN envoy Horst Koehler, a former German president.
Morocco however continues to maintain that negotiations on a settlement should focus on its proposal for autonomy for Western Sahara while the Polisario insists that the status of the territory — a former Spanish colony — should be decided in a referendum on independence.
The UN Security Council on Friday backed a United States-drafted resolution that urges Morocco and the Polisario Front to prepare for talks on settling the decades-old conflict over Western Sahara.
The council renewed for six months the mandate of a UN mission that has been monitoring a ceasefire in Western Sahara since 1991 and spelled out steps for a return to negotiations.
China, Russia and Ethiopia abstained from the vote, but it passed with support from all 12 other countries in the council.
“The expectation is clear,” US political coordinator Amy Tachco told the council after the vote. “It is time to see progress toward a political solution and after 27 years, to stop perpetuating the status quo.”
Morocco and the Polisario fought for control of Western Sahara from 1975 to 1991, but diplomatic efforts to end the conflict have been deadlocked since the last round of UN-sponsored talks in 2008.
The adoption followed a week of contentious negotiations during which Russia and Ethiopia complained that the proposed measure appeared to favor Morocco’s stance.
Russian Deputy Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov told the council that the resolution was “unbalanced” adding: “let’s not decide in the place of the sides what the outcome will be” of a new round of talks.
Morocco maintains that negotiations on a settlement should focus on its proposal for autonomy for Western Sahara and rejects the Polisario’s insistence on an independence referendum.
Tachco told the council that Morocco’s autonomy proposal is “one potential approach to satisfy the aspirations of the people of Western Sahara to run their own affairs with peace and dignity.”
Need for compromise
While the resolution does not set a timetable for relaunching talks, it stresses “the need to make progress toward a realistic, practicable and enduring political solution to the question of Western Sahara based on compromise”.
Following complaints, the United States agreed to extend the MINURSO mission until October instead of a full year, giving the council an opportunity to review the situation in six months and decide on next steps.
The resolution renews a call for the Polisario to withdraw from Guerguerat, an area in a buffer zone in the southwest near the Mauritanian border, and to refrain from relocating offices to Bir Lahlou, in the northwest.
In a bid to quell tensions in the buffer zone, the council requested that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres step in to “interview the parties” to discuss the military agreements underpinning the ceasefire.
Guterres last year appointed former German president and ex-International Monetary Fund director Horst Koehler to be his new envoy for Western Sahara with a mandate to restart negotiations.
Koehler is expected to embark on a new regional tour soon to press for negotiations, which some diplomats say could happen later this year.
The Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), declared by the Polisario in 1976, is a full member of the African Union.
The mostly desert territory has rich fishing grounds off its coast and may have untapped offshore oil deposits.
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has ruled out any peace deal that allows for the independence of the Western Sahara as the United Nations renews efforts to resolve the decades-old dispute.
A UN peacekeeping force has been deployed in the former Spanish colony since 1991 with a mandate to organise a referendum on its independence or integration with Morocco.
Morocco agreed to the vote in a 1988 agreement with the pro-independence Polisario Front that ended 13 years of conflict but has since blocked it being held, saying it will accept only autonomy for the territory.
“No settlement of the Sahara affair is possible outside the framework of the full sovereignty of Morocco over its Sahara and the autonomy initiative, whose seriousness and credibility the international community has recognised,” the king said in a televised address on Monday.
His speech marked 42 years since hundreds of thousands of Moroccan civilians marched across the border to lay claim to the mineral-rich territory.
The “Green March” triggered war with the Algerian-backed Polisario Front which had been campaigning for independence for the territory since 1973.
The UN Security Council adopted a resolution in April that called for a new push for talks between Morocco and the Polisario.
The new UN envoy, former German president Horst Kohler, held talks with both sides last month.
The king said Morocco was committed to contributing to the “new momentum” desired by the United Nations and to cooperating with the new envoy.
But he said it would categorically reject “any overreach, any attempt to undermine the legitimate rights of Morocco”.
The king said Morocco would press ahead with its own plans for the development of the Western Sahara, regardless of the progress of the new peace push.
“We are not going to sit idly by waiting for the solution to be found,” he said.
“We will continue to stimulate the development of our southern provinces and provide their people with the conditions for a free and dignified life.”
Tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees have lived for decades in desert camps run by the Polisario in neighbouring Algeria.
Spread over 266,000 square kilometres (103,000 square miles) where the desert meets the Atlantic Ocean, the Western Sahara is the last territory on the African continent whose post-colonial status has yet to resolved.
Morocco controls all of the territory’s main towns. The Polisario controls parts of the desert interior.
The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic declared by the Polisario is a member of the African Union and recognised by many African governments.
Morocco’s claim to the territory is supported by the Arab League.
The conflict has poisoned relations between Morocco and Algeria for decades. The land border between the North African neighbours has been closed since 1994.
The African Union has re-admitted the Kingdom of Morocco into the continental body, more than 30 years since it pulled out.
The North African kingdom quit the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), in 1984 amid a dispute over the body’s recognition of Western Sahara, most of which has been controlled by Morocco since 1976.
In 2014, Morocco rejected the AU’s decision to appoint a special envoy for the Western Sahara, saying the body had no legal authority to intervene.
However, King Mohammed VI has been making diplomatic efforts over the last year to try to win Rabat’s readmission.
Meanwhile, the Moroccan leader addressed the continental body on Tuesday for the first time since his country was re-admitted.
King Mohammed VI said the kingdom’s readmission is not intended to divide it, but to benefit Africa.
“Africa is my home and I am coming back home,” King Mohammed said, to applause from other heads of state. “I have missed you all.”
It is expected that the readmission to the AU would ease Morocco’s entry into fast-growing African economies to the south and help reduce its reliance on stagnant European markets to the north.
In the last few years, Moroccan firms have made significant investments across Africa in areas from financial services to housing projects to fertilizer plants.
King Mohammed promised more of this would follow the readmission. “Africa is indispensable to Morocco and Morocco is indispensable to Africa,” he said.
Several countries, led by South Africa, Algeria and Zimbabwe, had been concerned about the re-admittance, but lost the debate at the summit in Addis Ababa.