New York -The UN peace envoy for Western Sahara announced on Wednesday that he is halting informal talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front over their conflict and turning to shuttle diplomacy to break their deadlock.
Special envoy Christopher Ross said the Western Sahara showdown remains "very worrisome" but that nine rounds of talks between the two sides since August 2009 had brought the two sides no closer to a solution.
"I did not yet sense a readiness to take that first step toward getting serious, so we're going to have to work on this," Ross said after a UN Security Council meeting on Africa's longest running conflict.
Ross signalled however that a truce has been called in a UN battle with Morocco over whether he should continue as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's special envoy. Ban publicly defended Ross after the Moroccan government said this year that it no longer had "confidence" in the envoy.
Morocco, whose annexation of Western Sahara in 1975 is not recognised internationally, has proposed broad autonomy for the territory under its sovereignty.
This is rejected by the Polisario Front independence movement, which controls a small part of the desert interior and defends the right of the Sahrawi people to a self-determination referendum. The United Nations also demands a referendum.
The UN criticized Morocco's attitude toward the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara in a recent report. And the Polisario Front said Moroccan police clashed with demonstrators during Ross's first visit to the territory this month.
Ross said that instead of holding more talks, he would consult with key nations following the conflict and then engage in "shuttle diplomacy" with the two sides and visit Western Sahara again.
"It is my hope that these activities will lay the groundwork for effective resumption of face-to-face meetings of the parties," he said.
"The situation remains very worrisome and should remain on the radar of the international community," Ross told reporters.
He said letting the conflict "fester" heightened risks caused by the growing presence of "extremist, terrorist, and criminal elements" in neighboring Mali and other Sahel countries.
Referring to the tensions with Morocco over his role, Ross said that the welcome had been "warm and without reservation" on a recent tour of Morocco, Western Sahara, Algeria, and Mauritania.
Morocco's UN ambassador Mohammed Loulichki said Ross's efforts had been put back on track after talks between UN leader Ban and Morocco's King Mohammed VI.
He said Morocco wanted negotiations that lead to a "realistic" solution but also stressed Morocco's "generous" offer of autonomy.
Polisario Front envoy Ahmed Boukhari welcomed the new initiative but insisted that there has to be a self-determination referendum.