A United Nations envoy warned Monday that new hostilities could break out in Western Sahara unless there are "serious negotiations" on its future.
A 37-year conflict over the status of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony annexed by Morocco in 1975, had gone on for too long, said the UN envoy, Christopher Ross.
Some people might be tempted to believe it is too risky to disturb the status quo in search of peace in the North African territory, he said in a statement.
"I am convinced that this would be a serious miscalculation, especially since the status quo is now threatened by the rise of extremist, terrorist, and criminal elements in the Sahel region," he said.
"This dispute, if left to fester in this new situation, could spark renewed violence or hostilities that would be tragic for the people of Western Sahara and for North Africa as a whole."
Morocco, whose annexation of Western Sahara was not recognised internationally, has proposed broad autonomy for the territory under its sovereignty.
But this is rejected by the pro-independence Polisario Front, which controls a small part of the desert interior and defends the right of the Sahrawi people to a referendum on self-determination.
The United Nations brokered a ceasefire between the two sides in 1991 but a settlement of the conflict remains elusive.
Ross said he believed the conflict could be solved if there was a will to engage in "real dialogue and compromise to find a solution that is honourable to all".
The UN envoy said he was urging the parties to "move swiftly" into serious negotiations, and he was asking other powers to use their influence to encourage them to do so.
Ross issued the statement after talks with Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo.
The foreign minister told the UN envoy that Spain supported the search for a just, mutually acceptable solution that foresees the "free determination" of the Western Sahara people, his ministry said in a statement.
Ross said he had visited Morocco and the Polisario leadership, as well as Algeria and Mauritania. He also went to the Western Sahara territory for the first time and met with Sahrawis.
The UN envoy said he was travelling to Paris Tuesday and would soon visit Washington, London and Moscow for consultations before returning to North Africa for further mediation.© ANP/AFP