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WESTERN SAHARA: “Sahrawi People Must Decide”

Tito Drago

MADRID, Mar 25 2010 (IPS) - The only solution for the conflict over Morocco’s occupation of the Western Sahara is to do what the Sahrawi people decide regarding their future, Zahra Ramdan, president of the Association of Sahrawi Women in Spain, told IPS.

Christopher Ross, United Nations envoy for the Western Sahara, expressed himself in similar terms this week after a tour that took him to Morocco, Algeria, Italy, France and Spain.

The aim of his visits, he said, was to reach a mutually accepted political solution that could lead to the holding of a referendum in the framework of the U.N. charter.

Western Sahara, a phosphate-rich disputed desert territory on the northwest coast of Africa bordered by Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania, was annexed by Morocco after Spain pulled out in 1975.

A political process aimed at determining the future of the territory has been at an impasse for many years. In 1991, the U.N. brokered a ceasefire to end the armed conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the Algeria-based Sahrawi independence movement, which erupted in 1976.

But while a referendum on self-determination for Western Sahara, in which the Sahrawi people would choose between independence, autonomy and integration, was promised in the 1990s, Morocco has prevented the poll from taking place.

On Thursday, students grouped in the “university platform for support for the Sahara” organised a demonstration outside the foreign ministry in downtown Madrid, as part of a series of activities calling for the territory’s self-determination that began Mar. 15.

The theme of the students’ activities is “Camping for the Sahara: 35 years is enough; freedom for the Sahrawi people” – a reference to this year’s anniversary of the withdrawal of Spanish troops from the Western Sahara and the occupation by Morocco.

Ramdan pointed out to IPS that the Polisario Front has respected the ceasefire and sees the U.N.’s proposed solution as positive.

But, she added, “the problem still lies in Morocco, where the king is not in favour of allowing the Sahrawi people to decide by means of a referendum.”

Ross, a U.S. diplomat who U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed as his personal envoy for Western Sahara in January 2009, said “the negotiations…have stalled and we are all called to think and find the best way out of this impasse.”

But he also told reporters “I remain convinced that with good faith all will be reached soon to resolve this problem.”

Ross met with Sahrawi president-in-exile Mohammed Abdelaziz at a Sahrawi refugee camp in Tindouf province, Algeria; Mauritania’s President Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz; Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika; and Morocco’s King Mohammed VI.

Ramdan said that while the U.N. resolution for a referendum is positive, “Morocco has shown that it neither respects the U.N. nor complies with the Security Council resolutions.”

She was referring to a 2003 resolution known as the Baker Plan II, which envisioned Sahrawi self-rule under a Western Sahara Authority for a period of five years, to be followed by a referendum on independence, and a later 2007 resolution.

The Sahrawi activist said it is indispensable for the U.N. to make Rabat live up to the Security Council resolutions on the Western Sahara, “especially given the fact that they are supported by all of the nations involved directly or indirectly, with the exception of Morocco.”

Although the Western Sahara has rich phosphate deposits, fisheries and offshore oil reserves, it is an undeveloped, poverty-stricken territory.

Some 200,000 Sahrawi people live in the refugee camps in Tindouf province, Algeria, near the Moroccan border, where both jobs and water are scarce and summer temperatures soar to 50 degrees Celsius.

The refugee camps visited by Ross will receive another group of visitors between Mar. 28 and Apr. 3 – this time hundreds of mainly young activists responding to a call by two Spanish student groups, Voluntad y Determinación (Will and Determination) and Conciencia Saharaui (Sahrawi Conscience or Awareness).

The activists’ trip to the camps, under the slogan “Column 2010: Let’s knock down the wall and build freedom”, is aimed at sending out the message that it is time to find a fair resolution to the conflict, to allow the Sahrawi people to return to their territory and live in freedom.

During the visit, the activists will march along part of the “Moroccan wall” or “wall of shame”, a 2,500-km sand embankment built by Morocco in the 1980s, that separates the Moroccan-controlled areas and the Polisario-controlled section of Western Sahara.

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