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Monday, 3 December, 2001, 18:01 GMT
Chirac stirs tension in Sahara
President Jacques Chirac and King Mohammed VI of Morocco
President Chirac's comments have delighted Morocco
By the BBC's David Bamford in Rabat

The leader of the Polisario has vigorously criticised the French President Jacques Chirac for describing the disputed territory of Western Sahara as part of Morocco.

The Polisario has been fighting for an independent state in the region since Morocco took control of it in 1976.

But comments made by President Chirac on Sunday during a visit to Morocco, apparently puts France at loggerheads, not only with the Polisario, but also with Spain and Algeria.

Government officials in Morocco are barely concealing their delight at what they are interpreting as the first public endorsement of Moroccan sovereignty in the Western Sahara from a major European power.

Unwanted plan

When asked a question about the future of the western Sahara, Mr Chirac referred to the region as the provinces of southern Morocco.

UN representative meets Polisario leaders
Mr Baker's plan has been strongly opposed by the Polisario

The Polisario leader, Mohammed Abdul Aziz, said that France had violated its neutral role and international law by endorsing the Moroccan position.

As things stand legally, the UN does not recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the western Sahara and continues to support a referendum of self-determination.

That is a long standing position actively supported by Polisario's main sponsor, the Algerians, and also in recent days by Spain.

It is a development that has led to a deterioration in relations between Madrid and Rabat.

But at the same time the UN Secretary General's special representative James Baker is trying to gather support for a new political solution under which the western Sahara would become an autonomous region under Moroccan control.

This plan would almost certainly mean an end to any possibility of eventual independence for the region which is why it is being strongly opposed by Polisario and its allies.

See also:

02 Dec 01 | Middle East
Chirac wraps up anti-terrorism tour
24 Jun 01 | Media reports
Maghreb media debate Western Sahara plan
23 Jun 01 | Africa
Annan backs Western Sahara plan
01 Mar 01 | Africa
Sahara refugees' long wait
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