The 5-Minute Briefing: Trouble in Western Sahara

Why has violence broken out in Western Sahara?

The long-simmering conflict was ready to erupt at any moment, because of the lack of a political solution for the disputed territory which Morocco annexed almost 30 years ago. Thirty-three youths were arrested by Moroccan authorities last week for taking part in riots in the territory's main city of Laayoune, ostensibly in reaction to the transfer of a prisoner from there to Morocco proper. But Moroccan flags were burnt, and the provincial governor accused the rioters of having a political agenda. The Polisario Front, which is threatening to rekindle the armed struggle in its campaign for independence for Western Sahara, described the riots as an "uprising".

What do the people of Western Sahara want?

It is widely assumed that if a referendum on self-determination were held under UN auspices, in line with an internationally approved plan, there would be a majority in favour. However, Morocco has powerful allies, there has been much ado over voter registration lists, and the whole process has been deadlocked since the resignation of the UN special envoy, James Baker, last year.

Why does anyone care about a scrap of desert in west Africa?

It's certainly an important issue for the regional powers, which has prevented Morocco and its neighbour, Algeria, from having normal relations: a five-nation summit collapsed last week after the Moroccan government criticised the Algerian President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, for reiterating support for the Polisario Front. Also there is the pressing humanitarian need for the 100,000 refugees in Algerian camps to return home. Last and not least, like other desert territories which have attracted the interest of Western powers, Western Sahara is rich in phosphate and minerals. It was no accident that Mr Baker, an oil man, was the UN's envoy.

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