"The fate of Western Sahara belongs to the Sahrawi people," Mohamed Abdelaziz, the Polisario chief said on Friday in an interview with Al Jazeera.

Referendum

"We are not opposed to having the Moroccan proposal presented to the Sahrawi people within the framework of a UN-supervised free and democratic referendum."

Timeline: Western Sahara


1884
- Spain colonises Western Sahara.
   
1957 - Morocco raises claim to Western Sahara at the UN.
   
1973 - Polisario formed.
   
June 1975 - Morocco takes territorial dispute to the World Court. Rules that issue should be settled through self-determination.

Nov 1975 - 350,000 unarmed Moroccans cross into the territory. Spain agrees to transfer administration to Morocco and Mauritania.
  
Dec 1975 - Morocco sends in forces to occupy the territory.
   
1976 - Polisario proclaim the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) with a government-in-exile.

1976 - Polisario proclaim the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) with a government-in-exile.
   
1984 - SADR is admitted to the Organisation of African Unity. Morocco leaves in protest.
   
1991 - UN brokers ceasefire.

1992 - Referendum postponed because of dispute over who is eligible to vote.

2003 - UN proposes Western Sahara becomes a semi-autonomous region of Morocco for up to five years, to be followed by a referendum. Polisario endorses the plan but Morocco rejects it.

But he made it clear that the Moroccan plan must be presented alongside "other options, including full independence or incorporation in the Moroccan kingdom."

The UN has also invited representatives of the so-called Group of Friends of Western Sahara - France, Britain, Spain, the United States and Russia, but they will not take part in the direct talks.

Despite being portrayed as the best chance so far to reach a political solution, most diplomats and analysts said they could still see no way around the fundamental problem of whether or not Sahara is to become fully independent.
   
"Optimism may eventually be vindicated, but is likely to prove premature, since the underlying dynamics of the conflict have not changed," the International Crisis Group think tank said in a report.

An Arab diplomat said that just getting the two sides to sit down together was an achievement.

"It's very hard for them to talk to each other after many years without any contact," he said. "You need to build a lot of things before you get into substance. If you just have lunch, that's an achievement."

Morocco annexed the phosphate-rich northwest African territory after the withdrawal of the region's former colonial power Spain and neighbouring Mauritania in the 1970s, settling it with around 300,000 Moroccans in 1975.

The guerrilla war that followed was only ended after a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991.