The U.N. mediator in talks on Western Sahara sparked division in the Security Council on Monday when he told members independence for the disputed territory was unrealistic, diplomats said.
The "assessment" by envoy Peter van Walsum put him at odds with Sahara's Polisario independence movement, which has sought to keep the independence option open in four rounds of talks with Morocco, which annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975.
The talks resumed a year ago to try to bridge the gap between rival plans put forward by the two sides.
Morocco offered autonomy for the resource-rich territory of 260,000 people but ruled out independence, while Polisario urged a referendum with independence as one option.
The negotiations at a private estate near New York have made little headway.
In his assessment, van Walsum said he had "concluded that there was no pressure on Morocco to abandon its claim of sovereignty over the territory and, therefore, that an independent Western Sahara was not a realistic proposition."
Current Security Council president Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo said there had been confusion in the council after van Walsum faxed his comments to its 15 members on Monday just before they were to consult on Sahara. The council has to renew the mandate of a U.N. peacekeeping force there by April 30.
Kumalo said van Walsum's comments "seemed to contradict" a report on Western Sahara by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which was also before the council. Ban's report does not take sides on the merits of the two plans.
"We decided that we would focus upon the report of the secretary-general," Kumalo told reporters, adding that van Walsum, who also briefed the council orally, had said he was expressing his personal opinion.
Van Walsum suggested breaking the impasse by basing further talks on two "realities" -- that the Security Council would not force Morocco into a referendum but the U.N. would not recognize Rabat's sovereignty over Sahara without an accord.
"The unfortunate thing is that realism is only applying to the people of Western Sahara, and not on Morocco, and I think indirectly it sends the wrong message to Morocco," Kumalo said, speaking in his capacity as South Africa's U.N. ambassador.
The Security Council, however, is divided. South Africa and some other nonaligned members believe that as Sahara should have a chance of independence, but the United States and France have praised Morocco's autonomy plan.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters van Walsum's ideas were "worthy of serious consideration". Washington wants an end to the Sahara problem, so the region can focus on combating "Islamic militancy".
Diplomats said a group of countries including the United States was starting on Monday to draft a resolution to renew the mandate for some 230 U.N. peacekeepers in Western Sahara.
"So it'll be interesting to see whether any of these comments (by van Walsum) are now reflected in the draft," one nonaligned diplomat said.
Morocco's seizure of Western Sahara prompted a guerrilla war for independence until a U.N.-brokered cease-fire in 1991. The desert territory on Africa's Atlantic coast holds phosphates, rich fisheries and, potentially, offshore oil.
Morocco had long accepted the principle of a referendum but there was never agreement on how it would be organized and Rabat renounced the idea in 2004. Further peace talks are scheduled with Algerian-backed Polisario, but no date is set.