Senseless Saharan Standoff

One of the most pointless abuses of humanity - the holding of tens of thousands of Saharan civilians prisoner in Algeria for four decades - has taken yet another lurch into madness.

Morocco seized the Western Sahara after colonial power Spain pulled out in 1975. Then a rag-tag guerrilla outfit called Polisario raised some funds and weapons from Algeria and other leftist sources, to try and oust Morocco and seize the Western Sahara.

But as the Polisario fell back in front of the vastly more powerful Moroccan army, the Polisario cajoled and pushed 100,000 civilian camel herders and others into refugee camps in Algeria.

That was 40 years ago. Those folks are still there and the Polisario won't let them simply return to their homes in the Spanish Sahara - now effectively part of Morocco. These human shields or hostages are fed and housed in tents from donations by Arab and other states.

Recently, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited the camps and -proabsbly moved by their pointless incarceration, called the former Spanish Sahara "occupied." The Moroccans were extremely offended as they see the Saharan region as liberated.

Morocco has now cut off $3 million in funding for UN observers in the Saharan region and asked 84 staffers to leave. It also held a huge public demonstration by hundreds of thousands of people calling the Spanish Sahara an integral part of Morocco.

Ban, meanwhile, is currently holding meetings of the UN Security Council members to help force resolve the dispute - probably by holding a plebiscite on creating a separate county ruled by the leftist Polisario guerrillas.

The human tragedy is enormous. About 100,000 Saharans remain trapped in refugee camps - really they are concentration camps as people are not free to leave and return home since around 1976.

They are living in tents pitched in neat rows in the sands of the Algerian town of Tindouf because their overseers, the Polisario rebel army, want to wrest control over the region. But Morocco beat them to it.

In 1976 Morocco seized control of the Western Sahara - a vast desert landscape of wadis (dry river beds) and mountains and camels. Polisario rebels, protected by Morocco's rival neighbor Algeria, began roaming the Saharan region in Land Rovers fitted with extra fuel tanks and some fairly dangerous weapons.

I spent a week with those bad boys, roaring over the trackless desert at 50 miles per hour to visit a few ruined houses. Each time we stopped to rest, we parked the trucks under thorny trees to hide from Moroccan jets.

Back then, the Cold War was in play. Morocco was the darling of Ronald Reagan and Algeria was in the left-leaning Soviet orbit. So Algeria found support for the Polisario stuck a finger in the eye of its rival, the pro-Western King Hassan II in Rabat. It also hoped to get phosphates in the Sahara as well as a land route to the Atlantic that avoids the Straits of Gibraltar, which Morocco dominates.

Each time I went to Morocco as a reporter or a journalism teacher I was warned not to question three things: The King, Islam and the right to keep Western Sahara.

The Moroccans are determined to keep the Sahara - which roughly doubled its territory.

Morocco finally built a 150-mile long berm of sand and rock in the desert, separating the useful and populated coastal zone from the deep Saharan lands to the east.

Atop the berm they paced U.S. made motion detectors - any vehicle or person crossing the electronic beam would alert the Moroccans who quickly sent U.S. made jets to attack.

The Saharans have spent 40 years in the desert - like the biblical Hebrews in Sinai. On my visit to the Tindouf camp I asked the Saharans if they wanted to go home, even under Moroccan rule.

"Never--unless the Moroccans leave" said old men with grey beards.

Most likely they are dead now. But their families remain in the camps as hostages. One reason the Polisario keeps them in the camps is that the guerrillas can live off the food, tents, medicine and fuel given by Arab and other international donors.

Former US Secretary of State James A. Baker tried to mediate a solution but achieved little. The Saharans insist a plebiscite take place to determine if the Saharans under Moroccan control want independence under the Polisario or to remain in Morocco. But the Moroccans would allow only a small number of Saharans to vote and probably exclude those living in Algeria. The impasse over the election is the stalemate trapping all those civilians in Tindouf.

Rather than insult the Moroccans Ban would do far more to unfreeze the situation by asking for a monitored, secret ballot among the refugees to see if they will return home under Moroccan rule - possible under some form of autonomy - with UN safeguards.

The bottom line as a humanitarian issue is that all of the civilians in the camps should be able to immediately leave and return home if they want to - the Polisario should no longer be allowed to hold them as hostages.