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A fisheries deal between the European Union and Morocco does not include waters off the disputed region of Western Sahara, the EU’s top court ruled on Tuesday.

The deal, which allows EU vessels to fish in Moroccan waters in return for payments, was brought before the European Court of Justice (ECJ) because it was being implemented in territorial waters off Western Sahara.

The North African territory is subject to a dispute between Morocco, which controls much of the region, and the Polisario Front independence movement. The conflict began after Spain, the colonial power controlling the region, left in 1975.

The court, which was asked to weigh in on the validity of the deal in light of the dispute, ruled that the agreement was valid only “in so far as it is not applicable to Western Sahara and to its adjacent waters.”

The court noted that the fisheries agreement applied only to areas under Morocco’s sovereign control, adding that including Western Sahara in that territory would “be contrary to certain rules of general international law.”

The ruling on the fishing rights comes after the ECJ had previously declared that two other EU-Morocco trade deals were not applicable to Western Sahara.

The current case was brought before a British court by the Western Sahara Campaign group, which aims to garner recognition for the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination. The British court in turn referred the case to the EU’s top court.

In an opinion handed down last month, a court advisor for the ECJ said that the fisheries agreement should be declared invalid because it fails to respect the rights of the people of Western Sahara.

The opinion noted that more than 90 per cent of fish caught under the deal are in territorial waters off the coast of Western Sahara, but the agreement did not contain safeguards to make sure the people of Western Sahara benefit from money paid to Morocco in return.

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