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Saturday, August 28, 1999 Published at 18:37 GMT 19:37 UK

World: Africa

Polisario pins hopes on Moroccan king

Western Sahara has been claimed by Morocco since 1975

By regional analyst John King

A spokesman for the Polisario Front, which seeks independence for the disputed Western Sahara, has expressed the hope that Morocco's new ruler, King Mohammed VI, will be able to find a solution to the long drawn-out quarrel over the status of the region.

Addressing a meeting of the Polisario Front in the Algerian border town of Tindouf on Friday, the Polisario leader Mohammed Abdelaziz said his movement "pins high hopes on King Mohammed's active role".

[ image: UN Sedcretary-General Kofi Annan agreed a peace plan with Polisario leaders]
UN Sedcretary-General Kofi Annan agreed a peace plan with Polisario leaders
But he said he did not rule out a return to military action if the plan put forward by the UN was delayed any further.

The Moroccan ruler, who succeeded his father King Hassan II in July, has said he backs the referendum plan for the former Spanish colony, claimed by Morocco since 1975.

King Hassan's commitment to retaining the Western Sahara for Morocco was absolute, and King Mohammed seems likely to be no less determined that any referendum which might be held should back the Moroccan claim.

King under pressure

[ image: King Mohammed supports a referendum, but wants to retain the territory]
King Mohammed supports a referendum, but wants to retain the territory
Observers in Morocco said that any sign of failure to make good Morocco's claim to the Western Sahara could be damaging to the new king.

The referendum on the future of the territory has now been scheduled for July 2000, after numerous delays. The United Nations has threatened to wash its hands of the issue if any new delay holds it back to a yet later date.

The proposal for a referendum was first mooted by the UN after it successfully brokered an end to the 15-year war between the Polisario guerrillas and the Moroccan army in 1991.

Spain 'obliged' to help

Last week another member of the Polisario leadership, Mohammed Salem Ould Salek, said he would like to see Spain, as the erstwhile colonial power, playing a bigger role in settling the future of its former territory.

He said Spain had a moral obligation to assist in the settlement of the dispute, and pointed to the way Portugal helped to bring about the forthcoming referendum in East Timor as a model for Spanish diplomatic intervention.

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