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U.N. weighs another delay in Sahara impasse

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United Nations
Western Sahara

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -- U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was set to ask the Security Council on Tuesday to extend until April 30 the deadline for settling a decades-old dispute over Western Sahara, diplomatic sources said.

The current deadline is January 31 for Morocco, Algeria and the Polisario Front independence movement to resolve their differences over the fate of the phosphate-rich northwest African territory also believed to have offshore oil deposits.

Diplomats said Annan was sending a report to the Security Council later on Tuesday saying that his special envoy for Western Sahara, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, had not yet received a final response from Morocco and wanted to give the government in Rabat more time to prepare an answer.

Annan's report also would note that Baker was tied up with his new assignment from U.S. President George W. Bush -- to convince governments to forgive Iraqi debt, the sources said.

The United States, struggling with a deadly insurgency in Iraq 10 months after invading it, sees freeing the country of its estimated $120 billion foreign debt burden as key to reviving its economy as well as helping pay for reconstruction bills now picked up by Washington.

Baker's latest plan would make Western Sahara a semi-autonomous part of Morocco for four to five years, followed by a referendum letting residents choose independence, continued semi-autonomy or integration with Morocco.

The plan has been welcomed by Algeria and the Polisario, but not by Morocco, which says it opposes any plan that offers the option of independence for the territory.

Morocco has called for negotiations with Algeria to resolve the impasse. But Algeria has publicly ruled out talks, insisting instead that Morocco simply accept Baker's plan.

The 15-nation Security Council will have to act on Annan's latest recommendation before Jan. 31, when the current mandate of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the territory runs out.

The territory's fate has been uncertain since Morocco seized it in 1975 after colonial power Spain withdrew. The Polisario Front, backed by Algeria, waged a guerrilla war with Morocco from 1976 to 1991 in hopes of regaining independence for it.

Since 1991, a U.N. peacekeeping mission has pressed for a referendum on independence, but has been plagued by delays.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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