Somewhere in the Sahara . . . Britain's forgotten patrol

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

A CONTINGENT of 15 British servicemen has spent nearly two years in the Sahara desert at a cost of nearly pounds 1m a year preparing to observe a referendum that may never take place.

Britain has supplied 15 men, from all three services, to help to patrol the disputed territory of Western Sahara since September 1991 as part of a 327-strong United Nations mission.

The Ministry of Defence had few details about the contingent, but revealed that its members, who are rotated once every six or twelve months, are living in tents scattered throughout the vast empty desert territory, which is bigger than Britain but with fewer people than Basingstoke.

Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, was seized by Morocco in 1975, an occupation challenged by guerrilla forces of the nationalist Polisario movement. The only inhabitants outside the towns are the two armies and a handful of nomadic camel herdsmen.

The patrol is costing Britain pounds 800,000. The UN operation has cost dollars 70m (pounds 46m) so far - nearly a thousand dollars a voter, and there is no sign of a vote.

The UN was supposed to observe a referendum for the territory: independence or union with Morocco. It now seems Morocco has no intention of allowing the referendum to go ahead and no one in the UN Security Council will take a lead and force King Hassan - a close ally of France - to abide by his commitments. At a meeting on Monday, the Moroccan delegation would not even discuss the referendum. Instead the chief Moroccan delegate said afterwards: 'The Moroccan character of the Sahara cannot be bargained over . . . It is up to them (the Polisario) to see what is the best and most honorable way for them to return to the motherland.'

The meeting was regarded by the UN and Polisario as crucial to settling the latest Moroccan obstacle to the referendum - an attempt to add 120,000 names to the voting register. The King has promised Moroccans Western Sahara is Moroccan and he will not give it up.

Foreign Office sources said yesterday that if there was no referendum date by the end of the month, it would consider withdrawing the troops.