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UN council expected to vote Friday on Western Sahara talks

Morocco and the Polisario Front, whose flag is seen here, fought for control of Western Sahara from 1975 to 1991, when a ceasefire was reached and the UN MINURSO mission was deployed to monitor the truce

The UN Security Council is expected to vote Friday on a contentious US-drafted measure that would lay the groundwork for talks on settling the decades-old dispute over Western Sahara, diplomats said.

The United States has presented a draft resolution that would press Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front to set their sights on a return to the negotiating table, under UN auspices.

The measure put forward last week would renew the mandate of the small UN mission monitoring a ceasefire in Western Sahara and also spell out steps for a return to talks.

Morocco and the Polisario fought for control of Western Sahara from 1975 to 1991, when a ceasefire was reached and the UN MINURSO mission was deployed to monitor the truce.

After Russia and Ethiopia complained that the text lacked balance, favoring Morocco's stance, the United States presented a revised text on Thursday that would extend the MINURSO mission for six months, instead of a year.

This means that the council would revisit the issue in October.

Diplomats said they expected some countries to abstain, but that the measure would likely be adopted during the vote expected at 3:00 pm (1900 GMT).

The draft resolution "emphasizes the importance of a renewed commitment by the parties to advancing the political process in preparation for a fifth round of negotiations", stressing the need for "realism and a spirit of compromise."

The fourth round of UN-brokered negotiations on a Western Sahara settlement was held in 2008.

- Mutually acceptable solution -

Morocco maintains that negotiations on a settlement should focus on its proposal for autonomy for Western Sahara and rejects the Polisario's insistence on an independence referendum.

The measure renews a call for the Polisario to withdraw from Guerguerat, an area in a buffer zone in the southwest near the Mauritanian border, and to refrain from relocating offices to Bir Lahlou, in the northwest.

The draft resolution sets no timetable for relaunching talks, but calls on the sides to return to negotiations "with a view to achieving a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution" in Western Sahara.

In a message to Algeria, which has refused to engage in direct talks with Morocco over Western Sahara, the draft calls on the neighboring states to "increase their engagement in the negotiating process."

Morocco has long insisted that Algeria come to the table, but Algiers sees this as a ploy to sideline the Polisario and present the conflict as a regional one.

The draft resolution would request that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres step in to "interview the parties" to ease tensions over upholding the ceasefire.

Guterres last year appointed former German president and ex-International Monetary Fund director Horst Koehler to be his new envoy for Western Sahara with a mandate to restart negotiations.

Koehler is expected to make a new regional tour soon, diplomat said.