Kerry in Morocco for security talks

Kerry's visit takes place less than a month before the U.N. Security Council's annual vote on renewing the mandate of peace keepers Western Sahara

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived Thursday in Rabat, a regional ally of Washington which nevertheless ruffled Moroccan feathers last year by calling for greater scrutiny of human rights in Western Sahara.

Kerry was due to meet Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, before holding talks on Friday with Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar and other top officials focused notably on security and commercial cooperation.

Before arriving in Rabat, Kerry visited Morocco's neighbor and regional arch-rival Algeria, with the two countries pledging to work together to combat terrorism in the Sahel region.

Morocco is considered an important U.S. ally in combatting radical Islamist ideology, which has enjoyed a revival elsewhere in North Africa since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that swept away decades-old dictatorships.

The two countries have also been tied by a free trade agreement that came into effect in 2006, with bilateral trading reaching $4 billion (2.8 billion euros) in 2012.

But Kerry's visit takes place less than a month before the U.N. Security Council's annual vote on renewing the mandate of the U.N. peacekeeping force in the disputed Western Sahara, which is likely to feature highly on Morocco's agenda.

Washington sought last year to task the force with human rights monitoring, an unexpected move fiercely opposed by Morocco, which controls most of the territory but is increasingly under pressure over its rights record there.

The proposal was eventually dropped after intense lobbying by the Moroccans, who also cancelled annual joint military exercises with U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).

Since then, King Mohammed VI flew to Washington to meet Barack Obama in November, and a statement by the White House afterwards reaffirmed Washington's support for U.N.-brokered negotiations on Western Sahara, while describing Morocco's autonomy plan as "realistic and credible."

Morocco's proposal of wide autonomy for the former Spanish colony, which it began annexing in 1975 in a move never recognized by the international community and which it considers an integral part of its territory, is rejected by the Polisario Front.

The Algeria-backed movement, which has campaigned for independence since 1973, fought Moroccan troops for a decade and a half until the United Nations negotiated a ceasefire in 1991.

Successive U.N. attempts to broker a permanent settlement have got nowhere.