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Tensions in Western Sahara boil over, could derail talks

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Alvaro Barrientos/AP

(Read caption) Saharan women protest in front of the Morocco Embassy in Spain, Madrid, Monday, Nov. 8, 2010. At least three Moroccan security officials were killed and 70 injured Monday in a raid on a protest camp in the disputed territory of Western Sahara and unrest that then spread to a nearby city, where several buildings were set on fire.

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Two and a half weeks ago, Christian Science Monitor correspondent Drew Hinshaw warned us that the Western Sahara, headed toward peace talks but plagued by conflict, was poised to “heat up.” This week we are seeing the fulfillment of that forecast, as opportunity and crisis confront the region.

First, the opportunity:

UN-mediated talks on Western Sahara’s future began outside New York yesterday. The starting positions are the Moroccan government’s preference for Western Saharan autonomy, and the Polisario Front’s desire for a referendum on full independence for the region. Commentators Anna Theofilopoulou and Jacob Mundy find cause for hope in the talks, writing that active American, French, and Spanish involvement could help bring about a resolution after thirty-five years of strife. Edward Gabriel and Robert Holley, who served in Morocco under the Clinton administration, disagree with Theofilopoulou and Mundy on the specifics but also see a path toward peace. A lot of knowledgeable observers, in other words, believe the talks could, under the right circumstances, bear fruit.

Crisis, however, has already cast a shadow over the talks. Yesterday, even before representatives of Morocco and the Polisario came together in New York, Moroccan forces raided a “protest camp” near Laayoune in Western Sahara.

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