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Saturday, 23 June, 2001, 13:34 GMT 14:34 UK
Annan backs Western Sahara plan
Polisario soldiers
The Polisario could return to the armed struggle
United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has called both sides in the conflict over the future of Western Sahara to support a new plan for long term peace in the disputed territory.

In a report to the UN Security Council, Mr Annan called on the Polisario Front, who represent the indigenous Saharawi people, to accept a delay to a planned referendum on independence from Morocco in return for substantial autonomy.


It is high time to settle the dispute over Western Sahara ... [to] enable all its people to look to a better future

Kofi Annan
The plan, which also calls for five months of direct negotiations between the two sides, represents a last-ditch attempt to resolve the 26-year impasse over the region's status.

Despite hopes of a breakthrough, Polisario has rejected the plan, drawn up by former US Secretary of State James Baker, as a "Moroccan proposal", and not one that is mutually acceptable.

On Friday, spokesman Ibrahim Mokhtar said: "To give us an autonomy... we have to be first part of [Morocco] and we are not part of [it]."

Mr Mokhtar said he believed such a proposal did not respect the rights of the people in Western Sahara.

War threat

He also warned that if the plan was put into action then the Polisario Front could restart the armed struggled that it abandoned after a ceasefire agreement with Morocco in 1991.

Polisario soldier
The 1991 ceasefire has not yet resulted in a referendum
"What alternative do we have? Do you want us to die in the refugee camps?" Mr Mokhtar said.

About 160,000 Saharawis have spent most of the last 26 years living in refugee camps in an inhospitable desert area.

The status of Western Sahara has been in dispute since the colonial power Spain left the territory in 1975.

Struggle

On 27 February 1976 the Polisario Front set up what was in effect a government.

For the next 15 years, it fought a guerrilla war against Morocco which occupies most of Western Sahara.

Tent city
Polisario say they keep people in tents to give them hope of return
The 1991 ceasefire offered the promise of a political settlement.

However, a UN-sponsored referendum to decide whether Western Sahara should become independent or integrated into Morocco has never been held, nine years after it was planned.

The process became bogged down by continuing disagreement over who should be allowed to vote and an appeals process.

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See also:

01 Mar 01 | Africa
Sahara refugees' long wait
17 Jun 00 | Africa
Annan meets Moroccan king
19 Apr 00 | Media reports
Morocco's TV clampdown
16 Apr 00 | Africa
Rights centre opens in Morocco
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