The rebel Polisario Front and Morocco agreed ``in principle'' yesterday to accept a UN peace plan for the Western Sahara. In the latest round of moves to end the 12-year-old guerrilla war, the UN Secretary-General met Tuesday in Geneva with Moroccan officials and leaders of the Polisario rebel movement to discuss a plan he had submitted to them earlier this month.
The proposal is part of a peace initiative that began in May, when Morocco and Algeria, which backs the Polisario Front, restored diplomatic relations. The front, drawn from the indigenous Saharawi peoples, has been fighting for self-determination since Morocco occupied the Western Sahara region in 1976.
Negotiations for a final accord are still ahead, but a cease-fire is expected within weeks, say sources close to the delegations in Geneva.
A press spokesman for the United Nations in Geneva said that the UN expects to begin a peacekeeping operation in the Western Sahara before the end of the year. The UN is considering sending about 2,000 peacekeeping troops to the remote territory, which was a Spanish colony until 1975.
The content of the UN proposal has not been made public. But sources close to the delegations revealed key details and some of the points that the Polisario says must be resolved before there is a firm pact. If the negotiations break down, the Polisario will continue the war of attrition, while seeking ways to end the conflict, sources close to its leadership say.
Some points of the plan are unclear and others are at odds with ``non-negotiable'' positions held by the Polisario. They include:
Face-to-face talks. The Polisario insists that the two sides meet head on. Morocco is opposed to this approach, but may change this stance. According to a confidential source, the two sides met face to face at secret meetings held last month under Saudi Arabian auspices, and more talks are scheduled.
Withdrawal of Moroccan troops. To the Polisario there ``is a need for a total withdrawal of all the Moroccan troops and para-military forces,'' Bachir Mustapha, head of the Saharawis' UN delegation, said earlier this month. This point, sources say, is non-negotiable.
Additionally, the Polisario will insist that Moroccan administrators be withdrawn from the occupied areas. The only exception will be very low-level administrators, each of which must be accompanied by a Saharawi with equal powers.
Voter eligibility. The peace proposal calls for a referendum to establish whether residents of the territory want independence or integration. According to the informed sources, only Saharawis registered in a Spanish census taken in 1974, and their dependents over the age of 18, will be allowed to vote. This, said Mr. Mustapha, ``is satisfactory for us and for the Moroccans.''
Moroccan settlers. An estimated 100,000 Moroccans have been moved into the Western Sahara and now outnumber the Saharawis. The Polisario, Mustapha said, wants the Moroccan ``settlers evacuated from the cities, the places of voting, so as not to constitute an impediment to the free expression of the Saharawi people.'' A federative solution has been proposed by Morocco's King Hassan, but is not suggested in the peace proposal and, Mustapha said, would not be acceptable to the Saharawis.
The Polisario Front, which is outnumbered and outgunned on the battlefield, will have key advantages during the negotiations. Its greatest strength lies in the fact that 71 nations recognize the Saharawis' claim to the territory, while no nations back Morocco's claims. Algeria says its support of the Polisario will remain unchanged whatever the outcome of the proposal.
Moroccan officials are issuing no public statements on the proposal.
An informed source said, however, that King Hassan met last week with all Moroccan parties, including the opposition, to discuss the treaty. The source also said that Morocco's key concern is the withdrawal of its troops and administrators.
Another advantage point for the Polisario is that Morocco can no longer afford the war. The amount of war costs vary, from Morocco's own estimate of $100,000 per day to independent estimates of $2 million per day.
Mr. Wilson has spent four months on site in the past year, covering the Western Sahara war.