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Monday, 2 July, 2001, 18:21 GMT 19:21 UK
Analysis: New phase in Sahara conflict
Sahrawi children
A generation has grown up knowing nothing but conflict
By North Africa correspondent David Bamford

The 26-year-old conflict between the two claimants to the Western Sahara - Morocco and the Polisario independence movement - has entered a new phase with the announcement in the last week of June of a new draft United Nations peace plan.

The plan - drawn up by the UN secretary-general's special envoy to Western Sahara, former US Secretary of State James Baker - draws back from the traditional UN position that the issue be resolved by a referendum of the territory's inhabitants.

Polisario soldiers
The Polisario could return to the armed struggle
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has asked the UN Security Council to give Mr Baker five months' leeway to convince the two sides of the merits of this new plan, in which Morocco would be given temporary recognition as sovereign power in the territory.

In exchange, the Moroccan Government would allow the Sahrawi residents of the region a measure of autonomy, particularly on economic and social issues.

Over four years, democratic institutions would be put in place that would allow the Sahrawis to exercise self-determination.

Morocco has said it accepts the Baker plan as a basis for discussion. Polisario has rejected it, and has warned that if the referendum option is not restored, it may revert to war.

Colonial hangover

The dispute over Western Sahara stems from the early 20th Century when rival European powers colonised different parts of North Africa.

France controlled the bulk of Morocco, which became independent in 1956. Spain held on to two enclaves inside the territory, Ceuta and Melilla, as well as the phosphate-rich Western Sahara.

James Baker
UN envoy James Baker has been given another five months
The Spanish withdrew from Western Sahara in 1975, whereupon 350,000 Moroccans staged a symbolic "Green March" across the border to reclaim what they regarded as Moroccan territory.

This conflicted with a rival claim by Mauritania as well as the goals of the indigenous Polisario separatist movement.

Backed by Algeria - Morocco's regional rival - Polisario was able to mount an effective guerrilla war against Morocco over two decades.

Grey area

Because of an effective diplomatic campaign led by Algeria, Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara has never been internationally recognised.

As part of a ceasefire agreement in 1991, both sides agreed to resolve the issue by referendum but since that time, they have failed to agree on who should be eligible to vote.

In the meantime, over 150,000 Sahrawi refugees have remained in camps waiting to go home for the last 26 years.

The Western Sahara issue has dragged on for so many years largely due to the resolute and at times stubborn attitudes of both sides preventing a compromise being found.

Regional cauldron

This has been exacerbated at times by the governments of either Algeria or Morocco using the fervour surrounding the Sahara issue to bolster public support for their regimes.

Of late, Western countries have warmed to a perceived greater political openness in Morocco since the accession of the new king, Mohammed VI.

Polisario remains heavily dependant on the support of the Algerian administration.

Algeria continues to be dogged by factionalism and uncertainty, and strong military factions regularly block initiatives that might bring an end to this key source of regional tension on which the Algeria military justifies its powerful position in the government.

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See also:

01 Mar 01 | Africa
Sahara refugees' long wait
16 Apr 00 | Africa
Rights centre opens in Morocco
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