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The BBC's James Menendez
"This, it seems, is no empty threat"
 real 56k

Sunday, 7 January, 2001, 16:40 GMT
Rally drivers ignore Polisario threats
Jean-Louis Schlesser and Henri Magne drive their Schlesser-Megane in Moroccan desert
The rally is one of the toughest in the world
Organisers of the Paris to Dakar rally say drivers have completed a sensitive stage of their route through Western Sahara - despite a threat of disruption by separatists of the Polisario Front.

The rally's official web site said that cars, motorcycles and trucks reached the checkpoint at Smara after racing through 500 km of desert terrain from Goulimine in southern Morocco.

Earlier, there were reports that thousands of men were heading towards the area from Polisario camps across the nearby border with Algeria.

The Polisario Front - which opposes Morocco's annexation of the former Spanish colony - accused Morocco of violating a 10-year-old ceasefire and threatened to launch an all-out war if the rally passed through the territory.

Polisario warned drivers to avoid Western Sahara if they valued their lives.

Military threat

A 35km buffer zone separates the Moroccan and Polisario forces beyond a defensive wall built by the Moroccan army.

Western Sahara - A Brief History
1884 Territory colonised by Spain
1956 Morocco claims sovereignty
1973 Polisario Front set up to fight for independence
1990 UN undertakes to organise referendum
The French AFP news agency says the allegation that Moroccan troops had violated the terms of the ceasefire was made in a letter to the United Nations mission in the territory (Minurso).

In his letter, the defence minister of the self-proclaimed Saharawi republic is reported to have accused Moroccan forces of leaving the wall and heading for the buffer zone.

"This was a flagrant violation of the ceasefire which we draw to your attention and which calls for a strong reaction."

Polisario reiterated that the Paris-Dakar rally's planned route through Western Sahara was a violation of the 1991 ceasefire with Morocco, prompting an "immediate response in legitimate defence and the resumption of military action".

"The Polisario Front appeals urgently to organisers and competitors and their families to avoid venturing into zones of Western Sahara occupied by Morocco and to consider risk to safety and life," said a statement sent to AFP.

'Offensive display'

The rally is no stranger to conflict - last year's event was disrupted when drivers had to be airlifted out of Niger.

Polisario Front guerillas
Polisario have threatened to take military action
On Friday, UN special representative for Western Sahara William Eagleton said he was seriously concerned by the separatists' warning, and appealed to "all concerned to exercise the utmost restraint".

The event has been condemned by some French campaigners. The Mouvement Critique du Sport said it was an offensive display of western luxury that insulted the impoverished African continent.

Polisario has campaigned for the independence of Western Sahara since the former Spanish colony was annexed by Morocco in 1976.

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07 Jan 01 | Motorsport
Paris-Dakar judges take centre stage
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