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UN's Ban meets Moroccan minister on hunger striker

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon on Friday pursued an attempt to resolve a Spanish-Moroccan impasse over a hunger strike by a Western Sahara independence activist by raising the issue with Morocco's foreign minister.

world Updated: Dec 12, 2009 10:32 IST
Patrick Worsnip

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon on Friday pursued an attempt to resolve a Spanish-Moroccan impasse over a hunger strike by a Western Sahara independence activist by raising the issue with Morocco's foreign minister.

On Thursday, the U.N. secretary-general telephoned Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos and proposed what U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky called "possible steps to resolve the situation."

Nesirky declined to provide details. Aminatou Haidar has been at Lanzarote airport in Spain's Canary Islands fasting for nearly four weeks, since Moroccan authorities put her back on a plane when she returned home to Western Sahara's capital Laayoune after a trip to New York.

The hunger strike by Haidar, 43, has strained relations between Spain and Morocco, which annexed most of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, in 1975. The future of the territory is the subject of deadlocked U.N.-led negotiations between Morocco and Sahara's Polisario independence group.

U.N. officials said Ban had expressed deep concern to Moroccan minister Taieb Fassi Fihri over Haidar's health.

After meeting Ban, Fihri gave few details of their talks, but told reporters it had been decided that they would maintain the contact and each of the parties will evaluate what they heard from the other.

Fihri accused Haidar of "blackmail" and charged that the hunger strike was aimed at distracting attention from what he said was the refusal of the Polisario Front to engage in further talks over Western Sahara.

"It's not a humanitarian situation, it's a political decision ... to avoid negotiations," he said. "All political parties of Morocco agreed that we cannot respond to blackmail."

HEALTH DETERIORATING

Morocco has offered autonomy for the phosphate-rich territory, but Polisario wants a referendum among its inhabitants that would include full independence as an option. Both sides have refused to budge from their positions in talks that began in 2007.

A Spanish doctor said on Saturday that Haidar's health was close to an irreversible deterioration which could kill her even if she abandoned the hunger strike.

Spain's governing Socialist party has asked her to give up her strike. Morocco refuses to have Haidar back unless she swears loyalty to its head of state, King Mohammed. Haidar's lawyer has said her Moroccan passport was confiscated at Laayoune airport when she stated Moroccan as her nationality, while Morocco says she renounced her citizenship without pressure from officials.

"We have rules in Morocco to access. ... Our territory and people have to be in coherence with these rules," Fihri said. Haidar has accused Spain of violating her human rights by allowing Morocco to send her to Lanzarote, and has refused offers of refugee travel papers and a Spanish passport.

In Washington, the State Department said on Friday that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had spoken to Fihri about Haidar's health and would probably express similar concerns next week when she hosts Moratinos.

The hunger strike had "been for several weeks, and so that's, I think, our first concern," spokesman Ian Kelly said. "But I think we also want to be able to resolve this - the situation that she is in." Kelly added

However, he did not think the United States would play any mediating role.