RABAT - Morocco gained the support Monday of 36 African countries for UN-backed talks on ending the decades-old conflict in Western Sahara, as a rival conference on the territory got underway in South Africa.
Delegates at the ministerial meeting in Marrakesh backed a declaration which affirmed "the exclusivity of the United Nations as the framework for seeking a mutually acceptable, realistic, pragmatic and lasting political solution to the Sahara issue."
A swathe of desert on Africa's Atlantic coast, Western Sahara is disputed by Morocco and the independence fighters of the Polisario Front.
The peace process "must be protected from any interference, intervention, or non-consensual actions likely to compete" with UN efforts, the Marrakesh statement said.
The conference came as the Southern African Development Community held a conference in Pretoria, with a stated aim of voicing the "region's support for decolonisation and self-determination for Western Sahara".
That forum backs the Polisario's call for a referendum on self-determination.
Morocco maintains that Western Sahara - a former Spanish colony under its control - is an integral part of the kingdom.
A second round of United Nations talks ended Friday near Geneva, with UN envoy Horst Kohler admitting "many positions are still fundamentally diverging".
Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said his country would discuss "autonomy" but under no circumstances would it support a referendum in which independence was on the table.
Rabat's top diplomat said the sides agreed to meet again before the summer.
The Polisario fought a war with Morocco from 1975 to 1991, when a ceasefire deal was agreed and a UN peace mission was deployed to monitor the truce.