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Western Sahara climax?

Another East Timor is heating up just over the horizon in North Africa - on a smaller scale, but fraught with trouble for all concerned. A similar chain of events connects the Saharawi people of Western Sahara with Algeria, which has helped them, and Morocco, which occupies their territory.

Western Sahara, about the size of Nevada, lies south of Morocco on the Atlantic coast. It was colonized by Spain, as was East Timor by Portugal, until the wave of decolonization cast them both adrift in the 1970s. In each case a neighbor moved in to take over.

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The international community did not recognize either annexation and demanded a referendum. In East Timor last August, the people voted for independence and brought the terrible rage of Indonesia's extremists down upon them.

In Western Sahara, after nearly 25 years, the promised referendum still has not been held. Morocco has paid it lip service but has put it off with virtuoso quibbling over who shall be allowed to vote. It has tried to pack the voter list.

Morocco clearly feels it cannot afford to lose and will therefore prevent this act of self-determination until it is sure to win. This is a strategy that engages what is probably the most powerful force in present-day politics: nationalism.

In 1975, King Hassan II sat less-than-securely on the Moroccan throne after attempts on his life. On the day the International Court of Justice endorsed the Saharawis' right to a referendum, Hassan announced he would lead a peaceful march of 350,000 Moroccans, the "Green March," into Western Sahara, claiming ownership by right of tribal allegiance.

It was a grandstand play on an epic scale, larger than the Saharawi population of some 300,000, and it solidified Hassan's power. As a dividend, Morocco gained rich phosphate deposits, the territory's only natural resource. After years of guerrilla war, Hassan secured his conquest by throwing up a wall of sand - a berm hundreds of miles long enclosing four-fifths of the old Spanish colony.

It would be hazardous for Hassan's son and untested successor, Mohamed VI, to antagonize the hard-liners by giving all this up. Yet neighboring Algeria now insists that the referendum be postponed no longer but be held next July.

Algeria had long balanced its material and political support of the Saharawi liberation movement, the Polisario, with an effort to cultivate normal relations with Morocco. That effort has now been set aside. Algeria's new president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has stopped talking about reopening the long-closed border between Algeria and Morocco, and about reviving the idea of an Arab Maghreb Union that would include Morocco.

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In fact, after Algerian extremists massacred 29 civilians in Beshar, western Algeria, Bouteflika charged that Morocco had aided the extremists by harboring them within Morocco's borders. He also accused Morocco of trafficking drugs to Algeria.

At the United Nations last month, Algeria cited East Timor as an example of liberation that should now apply to Western Sahara. At the same time, Polisario, with headquarters in Tindouf, western Algeria, expressed impatience at the long delay of the referendum. A cease-fire in place since 1991 has not been broken, but September protests in the territory's capital, Al Ayoun culminated in clashes with the Moroccan police, rioting, looting, and the burning of houses. Peaceful demonstrations by Polisario supporters took place in Paris and Madrid.

There is, as yet, no threat of the savagery that marked the endgame in East Timor. But the impending climax of Western Sahara brings together parties deeply committed to opposing views.

It also touches the US. Relations with Morocco have been close and cordial since 1787. Morocco has been a moderating force in the Middle East peace process. Washington would deplore any pressure on the king to change course.

As for Algeria, the new president's promise of greater democracy and the continued export of oil and gas are important for the stability of a strategically important area. Not least, the human rights of the small Saharawi people are at stake. The next nine months will be watched with great concern.

*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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