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US launches work on consulate in disputed Western Sahara

The United States on Sunday started the "process of establishing" a consulate in contested Western Sahara, after Washington recognised Morocco's sovereignty there in exchange for Rabat normalising ties with Israel.

US Ambassador in Morocco David T. Fischer gestures after a meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker and Morocco's foreign minister in Dakhla, in Morocco-administered Western Sahara, on January 10, 2021. - Schenker is visiting the contested Western Sahara after Washington recognised Morocco's sovereignty there in exchange for Rabat normalising ties with Israel. Western Sahara is a disputed and divided former Spanish colony, mostly under Morocco's control, where tensions with the pro-independence Polisario Front have simmered since the 1970s. Fadel Senna / AFP
US ambassador David Fischer visited the port of Dakhla, 1,440 kilometres (895 miles) southwest of Rabat in the far south of Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, to mark the start of work on a diplomatic office.

"It is such an honour for me to visit this stunningly beautiful and critically important region of Morocco, and to begin the process of establishing a US diplomatic presence here," Fischer said, according to the US embassy.

Western Sahara is a disputed and divided former Spanish colony, mostly under Morocco's control, where tensions with the pro-independence Polisario Front have simmered since the 1970s.

Last year, Morocco joined the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan in agreeing to normalise ties with Israel under US-brokered deals.

In return, US President Donald Trump fulfilled a decades-old Moroccan goal by backing its contested sovereignty over the barren but phosphate-rich region, which lies next to key Atlantic fishing zones.

Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said Sunday that "Morocco feels stronger in its legitimate fight for its territorial integrity... with the support of its friends."

The Algerian-backed Polisario Front fought a war for independence from 1975 to 1991 and controls about one fifth of the desert territory.

Some 20 countries, mostly African and Arab nations, have already opened diplomatic offices in the Moroccan-held area, but the Polisario considers such moves to be violations of international law.

Trade deals

UN peacekeepers in Western Sahara are mandated to organise a referendum on self-determination for the region, and despite Washington's move, the UN insists its position is "unchanged".

In November, the Polisario announced it regarded a 1991 ceasefire as null and void, after Morocco sent troops into a UN-patrolled buffer zone to reopen a key road.

Bourita said Sunday that Morocco continues to "support the ceasefire, but will react to any provocation", adding that Rabat "will support the UN process... to find a solution to this long-standing dispute".

Fischer, who called the visit Sunday "another historic milestone in more than 200 years of friendship" between Morocco and the US, was accompanied by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Schenker.

The pair donned flowing white embroidered robes that are traditionally worn in the territory over their suits.

In December, the US State Department opened a "virtual" diplomatic post in Western Sahara, ahead of finding "an appropriate site" to build a consulate.

The building is expected to be ready in coming months, Fischer added.

Last month, Fischer said that a consulate would allow Washington "to take further advantage of Morocco's strategic positioning as a hub for trade in Africa, Europe and the Middle East".

The Morocco-Israel deal to normalise ties is expected to involve significant investment from the US International Development Finance Corporation, and Morocco hopes Dakhla can become a major regional port.

Last month, the DFC inked a memorandum of understanding to invest $3 billion over the next four years into Morocco or with Moroccan partners working in sub-Saharan Africa.

It also promised an initiative to "catalyse $1 billion of investments in projects that advance women's economic empowerment in the Middle East and North Africa".

US President-elect Joe Biden, who will replace Trump on January 20, has not publicly commented on Western Sahara.

Topics: United States , Morocco , Western Sahara , Nasser Bourita , David Fischer
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