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Morocco Winning Hearts and Minds. Rabat's liberal spending in disputed territory woos residents away from Polisario. WESTERN SAHARA: FROM WAR TO REFERENDUM

By George D. Moffett IIIStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 12, 1989


RISING out of the rocky, windswept Saharan desert, La'Youn's ornate public buildings, five-star hotels, and 30,000-seat sports stadium seem dramatically out of context. Fifteen years ago this former capital of the Spanish Sahara, one of Spain's two African colonies, was little more than a rude frontier village.

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Transformed by nearly $1 billion in Moroccan aid, it is now a gleaming model city of 90,000 - and a symbol of the sophisticated tactics that have brought Morocco to the brink of victory in its 13-year war against Algerian-backed guerrillas to gain permanent control of the Colorado-sized swath of desert on which La'Youn sits.

``The Polisario movement has had it,'' says long-time Morocco-based journalist Stephen Hughes of the imperiled fortunes of the guerrilla movement that has been fighting to make the Western Sahara an independent nation. ``It's all over but the shouting.''

Citing historical rights going back to the 11th century, Morocco annexed the Western Sahara in 1976.

To make good on its claim of sovereignty - which no country recognizes yet - Morocco has fought a costly war against the Polisario rebels, who operate from bases clustered around the Algerian border town of Tindouf.

Simultaneously, Morocco has sought to win the hearts and minds of residents of the Western Sahara against the day, perhaps not far off, when they will vote either for independence or affiliation with Morocco.

Following the massive transfusion of Moroccan aid that has made La'Youn a showcase in the wilderness and its citizens the beneficiaries of free education and health care, the outcome seems hardly in doubt.

``We're part of Morocco. We always have been. We always will be,'' says one college-age La'Youn resident, speaking in the presence of a Moroccan official.

New highways and TV hookups with the north have largely completed what one Western source calls ``Moroccanizing'' the Western Sahara, making its incorporation nearly a fait accompli.

In the long war of bullets and words, the guerrillas have charged that two-thirds of residents of the Western Sahara are Moroccan immigrants who, under Morocco's own suggested guidelines, would be barred from voting in a proposed United Nations-sponsored referendum. Moroccans respond that most Polisario leaders are themselves Moroccan-born, diluting claims that the Polisario is an authentic national liberation movement.

At stake is a region rich in phosphates (used in fertilizers), and largely untapped fishing resources off its long Atlantic coast.

The Polisario's position was bolstered by a 1975 decision by the International Court of Justice denying Morocco's claim of sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

Meanwhile, some 71 countries, most African, have recognized the Polisario's government-in-exile, the Saharan Democratic Arab Republic, as the legal government of the disputed area.

But legal and diplomatic support have been insufficient to offset Morocco's preponderate military might.