Morocco drags heels over W Sahara

The kingdom of Morocco, which has controlled the mineral-rich Western Sahara for almost 30 years, can afford to bide its time over a UN-proposed peace deal for the disputed territory, according to analysts.

    King Mohammed can 'sit and play tough'

    The plan adopted two weeks ago by the UN Security Council was hailed as a breakthrough in a dispute over the vast desert area on Africa's northwest corner.

    But analysts said the decades-old dispute between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front independence movement could still have a way to go, with little incentive for Rabat to do a deal.

    Western Sahara expert Toby Shelley said in the short term, the North African kingdom may be under pressure to budge, "but in the long term Morocco can just sit and play tough while time weighs heavily on Polisario".

    London-based Shelley said the Polisario refugee camps were "miserable, people are fed up of waiting for a referendum that never takes place and they are not in a position to launch viable armed attacks against Morocco".

    Referendum deadlock

    Morocco seized the phosphate-rich territory, about half the size of France, in 1975 after Spain granted independence to the Western Sahara. A sporadic guerrilla war erupted between Morocco and the Polisario, ending with a 1991 UN-brokered ceasefire.

    There are now some 300,000 Polisario refugees, an indigenous people calling themselves Sahrawi, in camps near the Algerian town of Tindouf and, according to Moroccan figures, some 700,000 inhabitants in the Moroccan-held part of the territory, about half of whom are Sahrawi.

    "What will happen is that nothing will happen. Morocco will pursue the negotiations but without touching the peace plan."

    Unnamed analyst

    The UN plan would make the territory a semi-autonomous part of Morocco for a period of four to five years before a referendum asks its residents to choose between independence, continued semi-autonomy or integration with Morocco.

    The Polisario said on Thursday only a referendum under UN auspices could "bring stability and peace to the region".

    But for Morocco, the UN plan is a step backward precisely because it calls for a referendum, an option rejected in earlier UN proposals, according to Minister-Delegate to Foreign Affairs and Cooperation Taieb Fassi Fihri.

    King's tough stance

    Analysts agreed those opposing views could mean continued deadlock, but with Rabat trying to appear to play along.

    "What will happen is that nothing will happen. Morocco will pursue the negotiations but without touching the peace plan," said one analyst, who declined to be named.

    Shelley agreed, adding it was to Rabat's advantage to bide its time.

    "It's more profitable (for Morocco) to ignore the process and build up population and forces in the area, he said.

    Morocco, which won some softening of the plan's wording, thanks to support from France, hinted a possible solution could be found through dialogue with Algeria.

    "A solution for (Western) Sahara is possible if Algeria makes the necessary effort ... Polisario never existed during Spanish colonisation and Morocco was the only claimant to the territory," Fihri said in remarks published in the local media.

    Shelley said Rabat's reluctance to accept the UN plan was a toughening in its stance under King Mohammed, enthroned four years ago after the death of his father, the late King Hassan.

    "It appears that Western Sahara is a settled issue for King Mohammed. The kind of flexibility shown by King Hassan has all disappeared," he said.

    SOURCE: Reuters


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