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U.N. council extends contentious Western Sahara peacekeeping mission

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council renewed a peacekeeping mission in disputed Western Sahara on Thursday after the United States backed down in an annual battle with Morocco, backed by France, over whether peacekeepers should monitor human rights abuses.

In an apparent compromise, the unanimously approved U.S.-drafted resolution encourages "the parties to continue in their respective efforts to enhance the promotion and protection of human rights in Western Sahara and the ... refugee camps."

A U.N. Security Council diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the resolution contained more rights language than previous years, describing it as a "step forward."

For several decades Morocco has insisted that Western Sahara - a sparsely populated tract of desert that has phosphates and, potentially, oil and gas - should come under its sovereignty, but the Algeria-backed Polisario Front independence movement contends it is a sovereign state.

Morocco holds about 80 percent of the territory and the Polisario the rest, including refugee camps.

While allegations of abuse have lessened since a 1975-1991 war, rights groups like Amnesty International accuse Morocco of continuing to use excessive force against demonstrators and activists and repressing political freedom, among other abuses.

Polisario's U.N. representative, Ahmed Boukhari, said it appreciated the U.S. push for human rights monitoring, but that the resolution adopted on Thursday was the same as last year.

"They (the United States) decided by unknown reasons to back off," he said. "Nevertheless, we appreciated the U.S. intentions and their idea should be maintained on the radar."

The United Nations brokered a ceasefire settlement in 1991 between Morocco and the Polisario with the understanding that a referendum would be held on the region's fate. But the vote never took place and attempts for a lasting deal have foundered.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Vicki Allen)

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