David Schenker’s visit precedes the planned opening of a provisional US consulate in the disputed desert region.
A senior US envoy traveled to the disputed Western Sahara after Washington recognized Morocco’s sovereignty there in exchange for Rabat’s normalization of relations with Israel.
The US embassy in Rabat called the trip on Saturday of David Schenker, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, and the top US diplomat for North Africa and the Middle East, as a “historic visit” .
Schenker’s visit comes ahead of the scheduled opening on Sunday of a provisional US consulate in the desert region, according to diplomatic sources in Rabat.
Western Sahara is a disputed and divided former Spanish colony, mainly under the control of Morocco, where tensions with the separatist Polisario Front have simmered since the 1970s.
Last year, Morocco joined the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan in agreeing to normalize relations with Israel under agreements brokered by the United States.
In return, US President Donald Trump has achieved a decades-old Moroccan goal of supporting its contested sovereignty over the barren but phosphate-rich region, which lies next to rich Atlantic fishing grounds.
The UN peacekeepers in Western Sahara are mandated to hold a referendum on self-determination for the region, and despite Washington’s decision, the UN insists its position is “unchanged”.
“ Virtual ” American presence
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a Christmas Eve statement that Washington initially planned to establish a “virtual” presence in Western Sahara that would be managed from the United States Embassy in Morocco, focused on promotion of economic and social development.
A “fully operational consulate” will follow, the statement said. He did not indicate whether the diplomatic post would be in Laayoune or in Dakhla.
Joe Biden, who will replace Trump as president on January 20, has not commented publicly on Western Sahara.
“Each administration has the prerogative to define foreign policy,” said Schenker, speaking during a previous stopover in Algeria, but excluding the US military presence in Western Sahara.
But, he said, “Let’s be clear: the United States is not establishing a military base in Western Sahara.”
More than a dozen countries have already opened diplomatic offices in the territory, including the United Arab Emirates and several African and Arab countries.
The Polisario Front, supported by Algeria, which waged a war of independence from 1975 to 1991, considers that such initiatives constitute violations of international law.
While Western Sahara is home to less than a million people, it offers Morocco rich phosphate resources, fisheries, and a key highway to Mauritania and the rest of West Africa.
In November, the Polisario announced that it considered a 1991 ceasefire null and void after Morocco sent troops to a UN-patrolled buffer zone to reopen the road.
Washington’s decision to recognize Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara was a significant policy shift. This decision baffled both the Polisario Front and Algeria neighboring Morocco, where the Polisario Front is based.
Mr Schenker also visited the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, known as Minurso, on Saturday.
He was in Algeria a day earlier, reiterating that Morocco’s plan for autonomy for Western Sahara should be the framework for negotiations, the online news site TSA-Algeria reported.