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UN Chief Explores Moroccan Dispute

November 8, 1998

LAAYOUNE, Western Sahara (AP) _ U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived in this desert territory Sunday for a firsthand look at what has been one of the United Nations’ knottiest missions _ resolving a 23-year dispute over the fate of the Western Sahara.

About 1,000 people lined the tarmac to greet Annan, who was welcomed by Moroccan Interior Minister Driss Basri.

Morocco claims the territory as part of its kingdom, but the Polisario Front wants independence for the Western Sahara.

The United Nations has been trying for seven years to organize a referendum on the future of the mineral-rich area, claimed by Morocco since 1975, when Spain abandoned it.

During his visit, Annan will visit the U.N. military observer team here that is organizing the referendum _ delayed by differences over who can take part. The vote is expected in December 1999.

The U.N. chief arrived from Mauritania. He was to travel Monday night to Marrakesh for a meeting with the king, before visits to Tunisia and Algeria.

Earlier Sunday in Algeria, the Polisario Front said the Western Sahara dispute will continue ``as long as the Sahraoui people have not freely exercised their inalienable right to independence, and done so in incontestable circumstances of freedom and confidence.″

The U.N.’s referendum proposal was accepted by both sides in 1991, but differences over how to identify those eligible have brought the process to a halt countless times.

To date, 147,249 people have been declared eligible to take part in the referendum. But another 65,000 are contested.

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