Attempt to resume Western Sahara family visits fails

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The UN refugee agency said Saturday that an attempt to resume confidence-building family visits to Western Sahara refugees in Algeria after a six month suspension has failed.

The Algerian-backed Polisario Front prevented 20 passengers on a UNHCR flight from Moroccan-administered Western Sahara from leaving the plane when they arrived in the Algerian town of Tindouf on Friday to see refugees, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement.

The passengers were flown back to Morocco.

"UNHCR is seeking to clarify with Polisario Front the reasons for the refusal of disembarkation," it added, expressing disappointment.

"It is our hope that the confidence building measures will be able to resume at the earliest opportunity."

The Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony that was annexed by Morocco in 1975. The Polisario Front is demanding independence for the region.

The six year-old programme to ease family contact stalled in March, after 10,181 people were able to make visits under arrangements with Algeria, Morocco and the Polisario Front.

Friday's flight was aimed at restarting the programme, after "intensive but constructive negotiations" with Morocco and Polisario, the UNHCR said.

The agency blamed "differences over implementation modalities" for the breakdown six months ago.

A Spanish newspaper, El Pais, reported last month that the United Nations had sought the help of France, Spain and the United States amid growing doubts that a settlement could be reached over the territory.

Morocco's 1975 annexation of the territory sparked a war between its forces and the Polisario guerrillas.

The two sides agreed to a ceasefire in 1991 but the UN-sponsored talks on Western Sahara's future have since made no headway.

Rabat has pledged to grant Western Sahara widespread autonomy but rules out independence.

The Polisario Front, with the support of Algiers, wants a referendum on self-determination, with independence as one of the options.

The UNHCR said it was pressing ahead with plans to expand visits with overland trips.

© 2010 AFP

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