Struggle in the Sahara

US-led talks could ease tension between Morocco and the Polisario. But the guerrillas stand ready

The aging hardware of Western Sahara guerrillas is kept well-greased and protected from the unrelenting desert sun by woven grass and faded canvas - in case the cease-fire with Morocco breaks down.

But as peace talks resume in Lisbon, Portugal, next week, there is increasing hope that the war waged here for 16 years may never resume.

Brokered by James Baker, the former US secretary of state and freshly appointed special envoy of the United Nations charged with solving the conflict, the talks will bring together leaders of the Polisario Front, which has fought for an independent state, and Morocco, which has occupied Western Sahara since 1975.

A UN referendum was due to be held in 1992, but was delayed and finally broke down over confusion about who were "real Saharawis" and could vote. Confusion resulted when tens of thousands of Moroccans were sent in across the border to vote.

Long forgotten by the outside world, this scalding hot end of the Sahara Desert has been thrust into the limelight by Mr. Baker's high-profile attention.

In one of the most remote and inhospitably arid places on earth, two words of English come hopefully from everyone's lips: "James Baker."

During a recent visit to sand-blasted refugee camps near Tindouf in Algeria - where 140,000 Saharawis, as they are called, have lived in exile for two decades - Baker was given a hero's welcome.

Weeks later, children even chased a visiting journalist around the camps, joyously asking: "Are you James Baker? Are you James Baker?"

A rare tour inside the third of Western Sahara that is controlled by Polisario - and separated from the rest of the territory by a mammoth sand berm 700-miles long that was built by Moroccan troops - indicates that Polisario will not settle for less than a Moroccan withdrawal and peace.

Uniformed Polisario troops have kept their fighting machines in ready position, gun barrels oiled. But the guerrillas are relaxed, enjoy tea along the "front," and are amused by the occasional stray cat. UN military observers regularly tally the hardware, as they do on the Moroccan side.

"The combatants don't understand the cease-fire, because the Moroccans are still here," says Ibrahim Salem Bousseif, a former fighter and now a Polisario diplomat. "This war is not a hobby. It's been bitterly fought, and you don't keep fighting 24 years for nothing."

The 1991 cease-fire has held so far, in part because both sides admit that they can't win militarily. But the scars have hardly healed in this moonscape.

The craters left by American-made 750-pound demolition bombs - meant to destroy buildings - remain unchanged from the mid-1970s, when Morocco bombed fleeing refugees with these cluster bombs and, according to Western human rights groups, napalm.

One bomb that proved to be a dud still perches on the edge of the pit it made when it landed with a thud instead of a bang.

"If Saharawis are given the opportunity to choose, we have no doubt they will choose their independence, in their own state," says a Polisario commander, Mohamed Ahamed-Fal. "If they are not given a choice, we will continue to liberate our country and continue our struggle."

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