UN chief vows to do utmost to keep Western Sahara cease-fire

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FILE - In this May 20 2008 file photo, pro-independence Polisario Front rebel soldiers prepare tea in the Western Sahara region of Tifariti. The Moroccan military has intervened in a U.N.-patrolled border zone in the disputed Western Sahara to clear a key road it said was being blockaded for weeks by supporters of the pro-independence Polisario Front. Moroccan forces set up a security cordon overnight in the Guerguerat buffer zone on Western Sahara's southern border with Mauritania, "in order to secure the flow of goods and people through this axis," (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza, File)

RABAT – U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres ramped up efforts Friday to try to get Morocco and pro-independence supporters in disputed Western Sahara to step back from a renewed flare up of fighting, warning that the clashes could rupture a nearly 30-year cease-fire and have “grave consequences.”

In recent days, Guterres and other U.N. officials have been working the phones and been involved in “multiple initiatives to avoid an escalation” -- so far unsuccessfully, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

But “the secretary-general remains committed to doing his utmost to avoid the collapse of the cease-fire that has been in place since Sept. 6, 1991 and he is determined to do everything possible to remove all obstacles to the resumption of the peace process,” Dujarric said.

The Moroccan military launched an operation in the U.N.-patrolled Guerguerat border zone to clear a key road it said had been blockaded for weeks by supporters of the pro-independence Polisario Front.

A Polisario envoy accused the Moroccan military of firing at innocent protesters and said that led to clashes Friday between Moroccan and Polisario forces. The envoy urged the United Nations to intervene.

Morocco annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony believed to have considerable offshore oil deposits and mineral resources, in 1975. The Polisario Front fought for independence and the U.N. brokered the 1991 cease-fire and established a peacekeeping mission to monitor the truce and help prepare a referendum on the territory’s future. It has never taken place.

Morocco has proposed wide-ranging autonomy for Western Sahara. But the Polisario Front insists the local population, which it estimates at 350,000 to 500,000, has the right to a referendum.

Dujarric said the United Nations has been “expressing our concern about the situation in Guerguerat for quite some time.”