YEARS of United Nations diplomacy have culminated in agreement to begin a small but significant peacekeeping operation to settle the future of the Western Sahara. The UN Security Council unanimously approved the start of the operation last Monday.
The sparsely populated former Spanish colony in northwest Africa is claimed and currently administered by Morocco.
The UN's task is to allow the legitimate Saharan inhabitants to choose freely by secret ballot whether they want independence or integration with Morocco.
If all goes well, the vote should take place by January.
UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar told the Council that it will be ``a complex operation involving responsibilities unequaled in similar operations in the past.''
It will be the first time that the UN alone will organize and conduct a referendum.
The UN's special representative, Swiss diplomat Johannes Manz, who will run the mission under the authority of the secretary-general, said it is ``one of the most challenging the UN has ever undertaken.'' He added: ``We have to establish the voter list, organize the voting, establish polling stations - all these are things that the UN has not done before.''
Morocco will continue to administer the territory, but the UN special representative may call for any laws in the territory to be abrogated, if he believes they may interfere with the referendum.
Morocco's King Hassan II led 300,000 of his subjects, unarmed and on foot, into the desert territory in the dramatic 1975 Green March to stake Morocco's claim, as Spain was preparing to abandon its colonial holdings there. When Spain pulled out, it split the territory between Morocco and Mauritania, which later renounced its claim. The UN has upheld the right of the Saharan people to decide their own fate. Moroccan troops cracked down on the Polisario Front, which had been agitating for independence.
POLISARIO guerrillas, who received important logistical support from Algeria, conducted an intense 15-year desert war against Moroccan troops. For more than a year, the Polisario has observed an informal cease-fire.
Morocco has refused to negotiate with the Polisario, not wishing to confer recognition on a group it considers mere rebels.
The secretary-general is to call for a formal cease-fire by summer's end, and the International Committee of the Red Cross is to arrange an exchange of prisoners of war. Polisario claims to be holding about 2,500 Moroccan soldiers. They say that Morocco captured about 200 of their fighters and that about 2,000 Saharans have disappeared under Moroccan administration.
Shielded behind a mobile, radar-equipped defense wall of bulldozed sand, Morocco gradually pushed the 7,000 Polisario guerrillas out of all but a narrow strip of ``no-man's land'' along the territory's eastern border.
Sixty-five thousand Moroccan soldiers will stay at the wall during the UN operation, a substantial reduction from the 165,000 soldiers Morocco reported at the wall last year.
The Moroccan forces will be monitored by approximately 550 UN military observers. More than 700 UN infantry troops will protect returning refugees and the polling places. Altogether, about 2,700 UN personnel will participate in the mission.
As part of the UN plan, any Saharan eligible to vote, plus members of their immediate families, will be repatriated by the UN High Commission for Refugees. France has reportedly pledged half the estimated $34 million cost to return the refugees. Because of the financial strains on the UN, the UN chief said he will not begin to deploy UN peacekeepers until the full amount for repatriation is in the bank.
And with other peacekeeping operations being planned for El Salvador, Angola, and Cambodia, total costs for the Western Sahara must be kept below $200 million.