UNITED NATIONS, Oct 26 (Reuters) Western and non-aligned countries disagreed today over rival plans for Western Sahara as the UN Security Council sought to spur Morocco and the territory's independence movement to negotiate seriously.
Morocco, which annexed the former Spanish colony of 260,000 people after Madrid's troops pulled out in 1975, has offered it autonomy but the Polisario Front movement is calling for a referendum with full independence as one option.
As the Security Council began discussions on renewing the mandate of UN peacekeepers in phosphate-rich Sahara, South Africa protested that a US draft resolution openly favored Rabat's proposals over those of Algeria-based Polisario.
A copy of the draft obtained by Reuters welcomes the ''serious and credible Moroccan efforts to move the process forward'' but merely ''takes note of'' Polisario's proposal.
Both plans were submitted in April to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, prompting the Security Council to call on the two sides to hold talks. Two rounds were held near New York in June and August, with little progress.
''Unfortunately there's still a desperate attempt by some of the countries that support Morocco to try and make it sound like the Moroccan proposal is the answer,'' South African Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo told reporters.
''We have made it very clear that ... we want the parties to negotiate based on the two plans that were presented,'' he added, describing favoring the Moroccan plan as a ''waste of time'' that jeopardized the negotiations.
Morocco's main allies on the council are the United States and France, but Kumalo said a majority of the 15 council members called for balance in the resolution.
Western countries argue, however, that Morocco has moved from demanding that Sahara be fully integrated into its territory to agreeing to wide-ranging autonomy, while Polisario has continued to insist on an independence option.
''We have to recognize that the fact that the Moroccans came forward with this plan -- it was a new plan whereas the Polisario plan was basically their old plan -- in a sense that injected at least a momentum,'' one Western diplomat said.
WALL OF SAND No country recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, where a 1,500-km wall of sand separates Moroccan and Polisario forces.
While France is a long-standing ally of Morocco, the United States has taken Rabat's side more recently. Analysts say it wants the Sahara dispute resolved soon to aid its fight against Islamic militancy in North Africa and believes the autonomy plan offers the best solution.
The council's resolution is expected to renew the mandate of some 200 UN military observers in the desert territory, when it expires on Wednesday, for another six months.
It is also expected to call on Morocco and the Polisario to make fresh efforts to resolve their dispute through ''substantive negotiations.'' A recent report by Ban said the talks so far had been disappointing, with each side sticking to ''rigid positions.'' ''It cannot really be maintained that the parties have entered into negotiations,'' it said.
Ban's report said each side should accept that it could at least discuss the other's proposal without that implying that it was abandoning its own.
No date or venue has been announced for the next round of talks.
Diplomats said Polisario had agreed to a proposal by UN mediator Peter van Walsum for the second week in November but that Morocco wanted to wait until its new government, unveiled on October 15, was endorsed by parliament. They said late November or early December now looked more likely.
REUTERS SZ PM0210