Western Sahara Deal Slips a Notch

UN officials worry footdragging has put peace agreement in serious question

UNITED Nations officials are worried that their Western Sahara peacekeeping mission may be in jeopardy.Morocco's King Hassan II complained in a speech broadcast last Tuesday that the UN was to blame for putting the operation behind schedule. On Thursday, the Polisario Front, a group fighting for Western Saharan independence, reported massive Moroccan troop movements indicating that a large-scale military attack may be imminent. Morocco claims and administers the disputed desert territory, while the Polisario Front has fought a 16-year guerrilla war for independence. (See story below.) According to the UN's peace plan, native Saharans from the territory will be asked in a secret ballot early next year to choose between independence or integration with Morocco. "I have, from the beginning, said that we would accept the results of the referendum, because the Sahara can only be Moroccan and nothing but Moroccan, whether or not there is a referendum," King Hassan said. In recent weeks, the UN has maintained a cautious silence as concern mounted over Morocco's refusal to grant UN peacekeepers and their equipment entry into the territory. UN officials say they are trying to determine whether Morocco wants to block the plan altogether. The operation was supposed to swing into full gear Sept. 6, the cease-fire date set by UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar and agreed to by the two sides. But Morocco has blocked the deployment of UN peacekeepers several times in recent weeks. Morocco refused to allow two UN-chartered supply ships to unload at the Western Saharan port of Laayoune, and directed them to the Moroccan harbor at Agadir.

Moroccan resistance A UN advance team planning to open an office in Laayoune early this month has not been allowed to set up their headquarters. And the mission's director, UN Special Representative Johannes Manz, was supposed to visit the Western Sahara in early June, but his trip was postponed and has not been rescheduled. King Hassan said in his speech that Morocco wasn't against the plan, but added: "We must review our calculations so that we will all remain faithful to the decisions of the international community." The biggest sticking point in the plan is the list of voters who are eligible to cast ballots. Both sides have agreed it is to be based on a 1974 Spanish census of the territory. Mr. Manz has said 70,204 people on the census list are alive and eligible to vote. The next step was to develop criteria for adding any eligible Saharans who were omitted from the Spanish census. Saharan tribal leaders allied with each side were to have contributed to this work. Then application forms were to have been distributed to anyone wishing to apply for inclusion. But officials and diplomats at the UN were astonished when Moroccans came back with a second list of more than 120,000 additional names of Saharans said to be also qualified to vote. The list was compiled by the Moroccan Interior Ministry, led by Driss Basri, an advisor close to the king.

UN mission "If they do their work, the UN's identification commission can let all these 120,000 people fill out individual applications.... Or, shall I go back and tell my people that the UN cannot handle the job?" asks one Moroccan source. Whether these applications are submitted now, or after the UN mission is installed on the territory, he says, "the UN will still have to deal with the situation." Moroccan officials are indicating they will not accept the deployment of the military component of the peacekeeping operation (MINURSO) - which they have always wanted to be strictly limited - so long as the parallel work on the voting register is lagging behind. "We said from the start that we don't want MINURSO troops if they don't have anything to do. They will not be allowed to go just for tourism, or to play cards, ... we are very touchy about our sovereignty," says the source. MINURSO spokesman Jamaleddin Ben Yahmed, interviewed in New York, says the secretary-general has always stressed two points: that the UN plan requires full cooperation, and that the timetable he proposed was based only on best estimates. The "recuperation" of the Western Sahara is the main preoccupation of Moroccan policy. King Hassan led 300,000 of his subjects into the territory by foot in 1975 to establish Morocco's claim. When Spain pulled out a few months later, it divided the territory between Morocco and Mauritania.

'No-man's land' squeeze Under Polisario pressure, Mauritania gave up its claim in 1979. Moroccan troops again moved in, gradually expanded their control over most of the Western Sahara. By 1988, Moroccan lines extended down to the Mauritanian border in the south. Polisario fighters were confined, despite occasional military strikes, to a narrow strip of "no-man's land" running all along the territory's eastern border. The Polisario Front issued a statement Wednesday saying new massings of Moroccan troops indicated Morocco's intention to wipe out the no-man's land and extend Moroccan military positions to the international boundaries with Algeria and Mauritania.

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