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Wednesday, 28 June, 2000, 12:54 GMT 13:54 UK
Search for Western Sahara alternative
Polisario Front guerillas
Saharawi guerrillas are already training for a return to war
Talks organised by the United Nations to try to break the deadlock over a referendum on the disputed territory of Western Sahara have started in London.

Delegations from the two parties to the dispute - Morocco and the Polisario Front - are attending the meeting, which is being chaired by a UN special envoy, James Baker.

There is no formal agenda for the talks, but international pressure is growing for an alternative solution after more than 10 years of bickering over who is entitled to vote.

The head of the Polisario Front told reporters he had brought new proposals to unblock the situation.

It is the second such meeting in less than two months. The last meeting, in London in May, lasted only a few hours.

The referendum, which has been repeatedly postponed because of disputes over voter eligibility, is to decide whether the former Spanish colony should become incorporated into Morocco or become independent.

Morocco annexed the territory in 1976 after Spain withdrew, prompting the Polisario Front to launch a 15-year guerrilla war for independence.

Representatives from Algeria - which backs the Polisario Front - and Mauritania are also present at the talks.

BBC correspondent Nick Pelham says the United Nations is expected to put forward an alternative to the referendum .

James Baker and Polisario Front
James Baker meeting Polisario leaders in Western Sahara
Last month the UN Security Council called on Morocco and the Polisario Front to consider what it called other ways of achieving an early resolution of the dispute.

One suggestion is a form of limited autonomy for Western Saharans under Moroccan sovereignty.

The Polisario Front has already said this third way is no way. Its leader, Mohammed Abdelaziz, calls the self-rule suggestion an "international conspiracy against the Saharawi people".

His guerrillas have already begun military preparations for a possible return to war.

Stranded refugees

The dispute over Western Sahara has long disrupted trade and communication links across North Africa.

To this day, borders between Algeria and Morocco remain closed; and it has left tens of thousands of refugees stranded in inhospitable Algerian desert.

It is unlikely that the London talks will achieve an overnight breakthrough to one of Africa's oldest conflict.

But according to our correspondent the UN is moving towards shelving the idea of a referendum for an independent Saharawi state.

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