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From The Indian Express

A sandstorm dies down

By V. Venkatesan

OUT IN an inhospitable desert on the northwest edge of Africa, the scorching sun is setting on a long and bloody war. More long-drawn than even the Gulf war, it has, however, not attracted as much global attention -- partly because the stakes here were not as high as in the Gulf. About 1.5 lakh Saharan Arabs have been fighing the Moroccan army for 13 years, hoping to establish an independent state where their nomadic forefathers did nothing more exciting than graze sheep, goats and camels. Their disheartening realisation now that they have merely been chasing a mirage will hardly go down as the biggest disappointment in history.

Trouble began in February 1975 when the Spaniards left what had been since 1912 their protectorate. Before leaving, however, they handed over the administration of Spanish Sahara -- as it was then called -- to Morocco and Mauritania. Following this, the native Saharawi Arabs banded together to form the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario Front), with the objective of achieving self-determination.

In 1979, Mauritania renounced its claim to the territory, but Morocco annexed the entire Western Sahara, claiming it was exercising historical rights -- a spurious claim, as the World Court ruled.

Fighting only intensified, with Morocco refusing to leave, thumbing a nose at United Nations resolutions affirming the "inalienable right to self-determination" of the people of the region. It was hardly an even match -- a rag-tag bunch of nomads was pitted against the Moroccan army which was equipped with modern arms by France and the U.S. But with a little help from Algeria and, to a lesser extent, Mauritania, the Saharawis kept fighting, with their back to "the wall".

"The wall" was an innovative Moroccan desert warfare strategy under which key centres were surrounded with fortifications of sand and rock, and the encircled area then cleared of rebels. This done, a fresh barricade was erected further up, followed again by the moppng-up operations. This way, the Polisario was effectively kept at bay by the "walking wall".

For King Hassan of Morocco, the war wasn't entirely a curse. Sure, it cost money -- close to $1 million a day. But it also ensured that Washington and Paris kept up a steady flow of arms. And, more important, it kept his Generals -- always a potential threat -- busy and sweating in the desert.

Given all this, the war might have been more protracted if the Saharawi cause had not been sacrificed at the altar of Algeria's regional aspirations. Algeria nurses hopes of leading North Africa's Arabs some day, to realise which it would be imperative for it to make peace with Morocco. Also, its oil revenues had been drastically reduced by OPEC's collapse, forcing it to cut costs, beginning with the aid to Polisario.

Deserted and cut off from their Algerian oasis, the Saharawis have now been constrained to accept the U.N. peace plan which provides for a referendum in Western Sahara to decide the self-determination issue.

For Morocco, the peace plan, to be implemented by the end of this year, will be a chance to translate its battlefield dominance into a diplomatic success. Algeria no longer backs the Saharawi demand that Moroccan troops and administrative officials should leave Western Sahara before a referendum is held. By "fixing" the electoral rolls by including those Moroccans who have settled in Western Sahara and by dropping the names of Saharawis who live in Algerian camps, King Hassan should manage to get the result he has in mind. n

(Published in Indian Express on September 9, 1988.)

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