RABAT, Morocco — The highest ranking U.S. diplomat for North Africa and the Middle East traveled Saturday to the city of Laayoune, which Morocco considers the capital of the Western Sahara, laying the groundwork for the United States to set up a consulate in the disputed territory.
The U.S. Embassy in Morocco's capital, Rabat, called the visit by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker "historic."
The United States agreed to recognize Morocco's claim over Western Sahara as part of a deal engineered by Washington for the normalization of ties between Morocco and Israel. U.S. President Donald Trump announced the deal last month.
Schenker visited the neighborhood of Laayoune that houses foreign consulates and met with the region's top Moroccan official, or wali, Abdesslam Bikrat. The American diplomat is scheduled to head Sunday to Dakhla, a seaside town with a fishing port where the official U.S. presence in the Western Sahara likely is to be set up over time.
Schenker's visit comes less than two weeks before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on Jan. 20, when Trump is officially set to leave office.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a Christmas Eve statement that Washington plans initially to establish a virtual presence in Western Sahara to be managed from the U.S. Embassy in Morocco, focused on promoting economic and social development.
A "fully functioning consulate" is to follow, the statement said. It did not indicate whether the diplomatic post would be in Laayoune or Dakhla.
Washington's decision to recognize Morocco's claim over the Western Sahara, which the North African kingdom annexed from Spain in 1975, was a major policy shift. The move unnerved the Polisario Front, an organization that has spent decades pressing for the territory's independence, including during an all-out war with Morocco.
The decision also unnerved Morocco's neighbor Algeria, where the Polisario Front is based.
Schenker on Saturday also visited the headquarters of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, known as Minurso.
He was in Algeria a day earlier, reiterating there that Morocco's plan for Western Sahara's autonomy should be the framework for negotiations, the online TSA-Algeria news site reported.
Algerian Foreign Minister Sabri Boukadoum told him that Algeria seeks "impartiality" from the United States on the matter, the official APS news agency quoted a ministry statement as saying.