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ALGIERS (Reuters) - The United Nations Security Council has unanimously backed the U.N. chief's attempts to restart negotiations to end the Western Sahara conflict and extended its peacekeeping mission for another year.
The resolution late on Friday came after the U.N. mission confirmed the Polisario Western Sahara independence movement had withdrawn its troops from the Guerguerat area in the disputed territory where they had faced off since last year with Moroccan forces.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres earlier this month called for Morocco and the Polisario Front, who fought a war over the region until a 1991 ceasefire, to enter new negotiations that would include proposals from both sides.
"Together with the earlier withdrawal of Moroccan elements.... this action should improve the prospects of creating an environment that will facilitate early implementation of Mr. Guterres's determination to relaunch the negotiating process," the U.N. spokesman said in a statement confirming the Polisario withdrawal.
A vast desert area bordering the Atlantic Ocean, Western Sahara has been contested since 1975 when colonial Spain left. Morocco claimed the region, but Polisario fought a guerrilla war for independence until the U.N.-backed ceasefire.
U.N. talks have long failed to broker an agreement on how to decide self-determination. Morocco wants an autonomy plan under Moroccan sovereignty. But Polisario wants a U.N.-backed referendum including on the question of independence.
Since the ceasefire, the region has effectively been split by an earthen wall separating an area controlled by Morocco that it claims as its southern provinces, and territory controlled by the Polisario with a U.N.-mandated buffer zone between them.
Tensions rose last year when U.N. peacekeepers intervened in a standoff after Moroccan forces crossed beyond the earthen wall in Guerguerat near the Mauritania border and Polisario responded by dispatching troops to the area.
(Reporting by Patrick Markey and Michelle Nichols; Editing by Toby Chopra)