The US announced Thursday that Washington is taking steps towards establishing a consulate in Western Sahara — a large territory in southern Morocco.

“Pleased to announce the beginning of the process to establish a U.S. consulate in Western Sahara, and the inauguration of a virtual presence post effective immediately!” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter.

“We look forward to promoting economic and social development, and to engage the people of this region,” Pompeo added.

The move came two weeks after President Donald Trump recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara territory in early December.

The virtual presence post will be managed by the US Embassy in Rabat and will be “followed soon by a fully functioning consulate,” he said in a State Department statement.

The secretary underlined the US will continue to support political negotiations  between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front within the framework of Morocco’s autonomy plan.

Occupied by Spain until 1975, Western Sahara has remained the subject of dispute between Morocco and the Polisario for more than four decades.

After years of conflict, the two parties signed a UN-backed ceasefire in 1991.

The Polisario, a national liberation movement that seeks to end Morocco’s presence in Western Sahara, has long called for a popular referendum to decide the region’s political fate.

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