US opens 'virtual' presence in Western Sahara ahead of consulate

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, pictured on December 9, 2020, tweeted he was "pleased to announce the beginning of the process to establish a US consulate in Western Sahara"

The United States will open a "virtual" diplomatic post in Western Sahara ahead of a consulate, the State Department said Thursday, after recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory earlier this month.

Announcement of the virtual presence follows US President Donald Trump's surprise declaration in early December supporting Morocco's control of the desert territory, which is claimed by the Algerian-backed pro-independence Polisario Front rebels.

The move was part of a larger agreement revealed by Trump, under which Morocco became the latest Arab state to recognize Israel.

Jared Kushner, son-in-law and advisor to the US president, took his seat Tuesday alongside an Israeli delegation on the first Israel-Morocco direct commercial flight, before signing a declaration which provides for the opening of a US consulate in the Western Sahara port city of Dakhla.

"Pleased to announce the beginning of the process to establish a US consulate in Western Sahara," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted Thursday.

"Effective immediately, we are inaugurating a virtual presence post for Western Sahara," he added in a statement, specifying that the post would be "followed soon by a fully functioning consulate."

"This virtual presence post will be managed by the US Embassy in Rabat" with a focus on promoting economic and social development, Pompeo said, without providing a timetable for the consulate.

He added that the United States "will continue to support political negotiations to resolve the issues between Morocco and the Polisario."