U.N. chief visits refugee camps to push for Western Sahara conflict talks

TINDOUF, Algeria (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Sahrawi refugee camps in southern Algeria on Saturday as part of efforts to restart negotiations to end a dispute between the Polisario independence movement and Morocco over the Western Sahara territory.

The Polisario Front, which says the territory belongs to ethnic Sahrawis, waged a guerrilla war after Morocco took over the area from colonial Spain in 1975 until a U.N.-brokered ceasefire in 1991. The two sides have been deadlocked since.

Many of the Sahrawi refugees, who fled the fighting in Western Sahara, have been living in mud brick houses in the harsh Tindouf area for some 40 years.

Ban has said he wants to relaunch negotiations over the desert region and allow the return of Sahrawi people from refugee camps in Algeria across the border. Algeria backed Polisario in the conflict against regional rival Morocco.

"I will spare no effort to help make progress towards a just, lasting and mutually acceptable solution for Western Sahara," Ban said, according to the social media account of his spokesperson.

The U.N. chief will visit refugee camps and schools in the Tindouf area and meet with the Polisario leadership there.

Before Ban's arrival, Polisario leader Mohammed Abdelaziz said the U.N. had "lost its way" over Western Sahara but called Ban's visit the best opportunity in a long time to reset negotiations over a referendum for self-determination.

Polisario, backed by Algeria and a number of other African states, wants to hold a long-delayed referendum promised in the U.N. ceasefire deal on the region's future.

"We want to hear from the Secretary-General in order to achieve a solution this year," Abdelaziz said.

But Morocco wants Western Sahara, which is rich in phosphates and possibly offshore oil and gas, to be an autonomous part of Morocco and disagrees with Polisario over who should take part in the referendum.

Morocco's king late last year insisted only the autonomy plan was acceptable. Rabat invests heavily there, hoping to calm social unrest and independence claims, and in February announced a $1.85 billion investment plan for the region.

Ban said last year U.N. envoy Christopher Ross had intensified efforts to facilitate the entry of the parties into negotiations without preconditions and in good faith.

"We expect a lot from the secretary general's visit. We expect him to end the suffering of the Sahrawi and to settle the conflict," Ahmed Lobate, a refugee at one of the camps, told Reuters. "All of us refuse to continue any more like this."

(Reporting by Abdelaziz Boumzar; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Ros Russell)