Moroccan offensive threatens peace plan

Wednesday, October 2, 1991

Carmen Maclean

Violating a United Nations peace plan,

the Moroccan government has resumed its war against Western Sahara. Morocco first invaded Western Sahara in 1975.

A cease-fire was due to come into effect on September 6. This was to be followed by a UN-supervised referendum on independence or "official" annexation by Morocco, before the end of January 1992.

On August 4 and 5, Moroccan planes struck military and civilian positions near the Mauritanian border and 100 km beyond the Moroccan-built wall dividing occupied and liberated areas of Western Sahara. The Middle East Report of August 30 quotes Polisario claims that some 200,000 Moroccan troops using artillery and tanks were advancing on Polisario positions.

Polisario reported that Bir-Lahlou, the capital of the Saharan provisional government, had been captured. Systematic bombing had destroyed the town's well, clinic and vegetable gardens. Thousands fled into the desert with whatever livestock they could save.

The Moroccan government has banned a UN supervisory body and UN special envoy Johannes Manz from entering the area. Two UN ships were refused permission to dock at El Aioun, the occupied Saharan capital.

In May the UN General Assembly approved a resolution for the referendum which specified that Moroccan forces will be confined to certain areas and not exceed 65,000.

September 6 was accepted as the cease-fire date by the UN secretary general, Morocco and Polisario.

The plan also provides for a commission to consult with Sahrawi tribal chiefs over who should be included in the referendum. A 1974 census is the basis of voting rolls. Anyone omitted from that list can appeal to the commission.

Over several weeks, Morocco submitted a list of 120,000 names which it claimed should be added to the voter list. (The 1974 census figure was only some 70,000 names.) Additions to the voting list were supposed to be made by individuals, not en masse by parties to the conflict.

The Sahrawi population, estimated at 1 million, consists mainly of 40 nomadic tribes. Historically, these tribes were governed by an Assembly of Forty.

In November 1975, Franco's Spain agreed with Morocco and Mauritania to pull out of the territory in return for a share in its phosphate wealth, ending nearly 100 years of Spanish colonial rule.

Morocco and Mauritania immediately invaded Western Sahara. The International Court had dismissed Moroccan and Mauritanian claims he month before the invasion.

The Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was founded by Polisario in February 1976. It is recognised by about 70 countries. In 1979, after signing a peace treaty with Polisario, Mauritania withdrew its forces.

Morocco receives military aid from the US (US$147.4 million in 1990). France also aids Hassan's regime. In the late '70s, France bombed guerilla units and civilians with napalm and phosphorous.

The war has forced more than 160,000 Sahrawis into refugee camps in the Tindouf area of Algeria. There, a state in exile exists in four tent cities.

These are administered by elected committees. There is a high level of local participation, and women play key roles in the administration of the camps. Their efficient education system has achieved an 80% literacy rate. Morocco, which has as many soldiers as teachers, has a literacy rate of around 38%.

The Moroccan human rights organisation ASDHOM estimates that there are 785 political detainees and 800 civilian members of the Polisario Front held in Moroccan prisons.

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