North African oil explorations threaten to complicate peace settlement

Nov 15, 2001 01:00 AM

Exploration off the north African coast is a mixed blessing as it will further complicate the peace process. A surge of interest in oil exploration off the Atlantic coast of north Africa threatens to further complicate a peace settlement in the western Sahara.
In the past year, Morocco has signed a dozen exploration or reconnaissance licences. Almost 40 licences are in operation off Morocco's Atlantic seaboard as oil companies seek to disprove the saying "the Ottomans stopped at Algeria and so did the oil".
In May, a consortium led by Woodside of Australia struck oil offshore Mauritania. A second well was disappointing but more drilling is scheduled. Between Morocco and Mauritania lies the disputed territory of Western Sahara, which is potentially rich in oil reserves.

From 1975 to 1991, guerrillas of the Polisario Front fought against the Spanish colonial regime and then against Morocco and Mauritania, forcing the latter to withdraw its territorial claim. Morocco stayed on with thousands of troops garrisoning the region while the population fled to refugee camps in Algeria.
Since the 1991 cease-fire the United Nations has worked to broker a referendum but the process of allowing Sahrawis to choose independence or integration with Morocco has been mired by constant disagreement. In June UN secretary-general Kofi Annan called on Morocco and the Polisario to spend the next five months in talks to establish a five-year framework that ends with a referendum.
He warned the UN would consider ending its mediation if the parties made no progress. Subsequent meetings, failed to bring about a breakthrough. The Moroccan government added to the tension last month when it signed two oil exploration deals, one with France's TotalFinaElf and the other with Kerr-McGee, the Oklahoma energy and chemicals company.

Though relatively minor in value, the contracts would allow the two companies to search for oil off the coast of the disputed territories of the western Sahara. After protests fromPolisario, UN experts are looking into the legality of the oil licences. Any definitive finding will anger one of the parties to the dispute, further muddying the 10-year dilemma between cease-fire and peace.

Source: Business Day/All Africa Global Media
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