War drums beat again for Polisario Front guerrillas

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The Independent Online

After a cease-fire of more than 10 years, the threat of renewed war between the Polisario Front and Morocco was looming yesterday as the United States backed plans to give Morocco sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

With the deadline for a UN peacekeeping mandate in the vast, arid but phosphate-rich territory set to expire, the US, with strong British backing, is proposing what it says is a fair compromise to end a 30-year-old conflict.

The 15-member Security Council began discussions on the plan last night, and was expected to extend the UN mission by three months to give the deeply divided members more time to discuss the issue.

Algerian-backed Polisario Front guerrillas went to war against Morocco in 1975 after the kingdom annexed the territory following the departure of the Spanish colonists. The struggle which ensued created one of the world's largest and by now most forgotten humanitarian crises. Tens of thousands of Saharan refugees, most descended from nomadic desert tribes, are still stranded inside Algeria to this day.

The US proposal, which Morocco supports, gives Rabat ultimate sovereignty over the Western Sahara, although the territory would have wide-ranging autonomy. The brainchild of James Baker, the former US Secretary of State, the plan has angered the Sahrawi independence movement. Not only does it quash any hopes of independence, it all but abandons a long-standing UN commitment to allow the Western Sahara people to determine their future in a referendum.

A UN ceasefire was brokered in 1991 on the promise of a referendum. But disputes over who could vote in this semi-nomadic, semi-literate society have raged for nearly a decade. Last night a senior British diplomat said: "It is quite clear a referendum is never going to be implemented.''

Meanwhile on both sides of the 2000km wall of sand and landmines that runs the length of the border with Algeria, families are divided and allegations of disappearances, unlawful detentions and torture persist.

After a 10-year impasse, a Moroccan diplomatic offensive led by the young King Mohammed the Sixth appears to be paying dividends. Many Western governments appear to believe that this is a good opportunity to forge a favourable relationship with a liberal-minded Islamic ruler .

Laayoune, the capital of the Western Sahara, could hardly be depicted as a war zone. UN peacekeepers have so little to do they call their mission Club Med. But in modest homes off the city's run-down side streets, Saharan activists warned of a "return to guerrilla war'' if the UN withdraws and the Baker plan is imposed without a referendum.

"Self-determination is sacred for the Sahrawi people,'' said Dahaa Ramouni, a member of a Sahrawi human rights group. "If that is denied us, although we don't want it, the danger is the Polisario will resume hostilities.''

Sidi Mohammed Dadesh, a veteran of the Polisario campaign, said: "We want a referendum and anyone who wants another solution wants a return to war.''

Algeria's reaction is crucial. Rivalry between the neighbouring states for the Western Sahara's phosphate reserves, its offshore oil potential and its strategic location on the Atlantic, is at the route of the conflict.Hamid Chabar, the king's appointee to the territory, suggested yesterday that Morocco would be ready to grant Algeria access to the Atlantic as part of a settlement.

Despite the Polisario's rhetoric, the diplomatic battle is not going their way. Morocco has worked effectively to undermine the movement's claims to nationhood by bringing thousands of people into the territory who claim to be Sahrawi. More than 20,000 nomads have been camped in Laayoune since 1991 waiting for a referendum. A mother in a breeze-block hut decorated with artificial flowers and a television set said yesterday: "We came here as a show of loyalty to Morocco. If there is no vote, that is God's will.''