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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 October, 2003, 01:49 GMT 02:49 UK
'Africa's last colony'
By Pascale Harter
BBC, Tifariti, Western Sahara

Woman getting water from a water tank
Water is a prized commodity in the Sahara
It is one of Africa's longest ongoing wars. Forgotten, but still not over.

Every four years the Polisario Front holds a congress, to discuss how to proceed with their 27-year battle against Morocco for self-determination of the disputed Western Sahara.

Hundreds of Polisario representatives based as far a field as Australia make their way back for the event.

This year, for the first time since a ceasefire was signed with Morocco in 1991, the Polisario held their congress in the heart of what they proudly call "liberated territory".

Most of the international community consider it to be in south-west Algeria, just 300 kilometres from Tindouf.

For some it is a no-mans land under de facto control of the Polisario.

For Morocco, it is just a threat; Tifariti is 100 kilometres from the Moroccan wall of defence, a wall in the middle of the Sahara desert, stretching the length of the Moroccan-controlled Sahara border with Algeria.

Holding the congress here was a ratcheting up of the pressure for a settlement.

Bone-shaking drive

Polisario Secretary General Mohamed Abdelaziz says the choice of venue was intended to remind Morocco that the Polisario is there, occupying its land, and pursuing the struggle for independence with firmness.

He also told the congress that a return to all-out war with Morocco was one option to be considered.

Polisario Secretary General Mohamed Abdelaziz
Abdelaziz has warned of a return to war

For journalists, it was a chance to see the land the Polisario is fighting over.

It's hard to get to Tifariti. It takes nine hours of bone-shaking off-piste driving across hundreds of kilometres of barren desert.

The only landmarks are the very occasional tent inhabited by Saharawi nomads, surviving under the unrelenting sun with only a deep well of sandy water, and if they're wealthy, a few goats.

Tifariti itself is hardly any better. When Western Sahara belonged to Spain, it was a thriving crossroads for desert traders.

For two and a half decades it has been a crumbling military base.


In its grounds the tail of a Moroccan air force jet shot down during the war is a prized monument.

Now it is more often used as a washing line. Before I could take a photo, the Polisario officer accompanying me shouted at his men to remove their clothes which were drying on the plane under the scorching sun of the Sahara.

It was a telling indication of the state of the war.

Since 1976 the Polisario Front, the government of exiled Saharawis fighting for self-determination of the Western Sahara, has been at war with Morocco.

The United Nations has had a force on the ground monitoring the ceasefire since 1991.

Minurso was intended to be a six month mission to facilitate the holding of a referendum.

Twelve years later, it is still there, but the referendum looks no nearer.

Kofi Anan has called the negotiations a "zero-sum game".

Little change

Despite the gung-ho talk by President Mohamed Abdelaziz, at the congress the Polisario threw its weight behind the latest UN-brokered peace plan.

Tail of a Moroccan plane
The plane now serves as a washing line
This is a recycled proposal from Kofi Anan's personal envoy to the region, James Baker.

He proposes five years of autonomy for the Western Sahara under the auspices of the Moroccan Government, followed by a referendum.

In the referendum Saharawis and Moroccans from the north who settled in the 1970s will be asked to choose between independence and integration with Morocco.

Morocco has already rejected the latest Baker Plan. On a visit to Morocco one week ago, French President Jacques Chirac pledged his full support to Morocco.

As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, France is likely to protect the North African Kingdom from any pressure the Security Council might exert in order to close, once and for all, this last open file at the United Nations Decolonisation Committee.

But looking out at the desert around Tifariti it is hard to imagine anything changing; the landscape becoming more kindly disposed to human habitation, or the Polisario ever abandoning their claim to it.

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