Rabat in the process of developing response on peace plan

The United Nations has proposed extending its mission to the Western Sahara for a three months amid signs that Morocco will respond positively to the latest UN proposal for resolving a 28-year-old dispute over control of disputed former Spanish colony.

On Wednesday, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed that the mandate for the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) be extended until the end of April in order to give Morocco more time to respond to the peace plan recommended by his Special envoy James Baker.

Annan said he believed that Morocco, which annexed the Western Sahara in 1976 after Spain withdrew its colonial administration, would give a final reply to Baker's proposal "before the end of April 2004."

The peace plan has already been accepted by the Polisario movement, which is fighting for the independence of the desert territory on the Northwest coast of Africa, but Morocco initially rejected it.

A diplomatic source in Rabat told IRIN on Thursday that the Moroccan government was developing a definitive response to the Baker plan which might offer more autonomy to the Western Sahara than it had previously been willing to concede.

"The Moroccan government sent a delegation to the United States in December and held direct talks with Mr Baker about their ideas on Western Sahara and the plan," the source said.

"They were advised to continue to develop their ideas and write them out with the aim of presenting them to the UN Security Council by end of April," he added.

The latest UN plan for the Western Sahara was drawn up last year by former US Secretary of State James Baker. It provides for a referendum in four to five years time. This would offer the inhabitants of the territory a choice between independence, autonomy within Morocco or complete integration with Morocco.

The plan was accepted by Polisario in July and was approved by the UN Security Council in August, but Morocco rejected it.

The diplomatic source told IRIN: "Morocco is obviously not in favour of any sort of plan that would lead to independence for the Western Sahara."

But he added: "It is willing to grant a significant amount of autonomy as long as Western Sahara still remains under its territory."

The source said: "The ball is in Morocco's court.....If the Moroccans can propose a plan acceptable to the Polisario then the process could move forward."

One of the sticking points has been a dispute over who should be allowed to vote in the referendum.

Rabat wants its own settlers in the territory to be eligible to vote, whereas Polisario would like to exclude most Moroccan immigrants, but include Western Sahara refugees living in other countries, particularly Algeria.

Under the Baker plan, everyone over the age of 18 who had been continuously resident of Western Sahara since 1999 would be allowed to take part. So too would refugees whose names appeared on the UNHCR repatriation list as of 31 October 2000.

The Baker plan proposes that during the run-up to the referendum an autonomous Western Sahara Authority (WSA) be made responsible for local government, taxation, economic development, internal security, transportation, agriculture, mining, fisheries, socio-cultural affairs and education.

Morocco would retain control over foreign relations, national security, external defence and all matters relating to the production, sale, ownership and use of weapons during this period.

Unlike earlier UN proposals, the new plan does not require the consent of both parties at every step of its implementation.

In his latest report, Annan said recent confidence-building measures between Morocco and the Polisario, should allow UN-supervised family visits between refugees at camps in western Algeria and their relatives back home to begin next month.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR recently established a free telephone service for 165,000 Western Sahara refugees living in camps near Tindouf in Western Algeria to phone friends and relatives still living in the sparsely populated desert territory.

However, Annan warned that more relief aid was needed to ensure the refugees do not run short of food.

"Without significant donor contributions, the Western Saharan refugee assistance programme may face a critical situation in the coming months," the Secretary-General said.

In December, UNHCR and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) jointly appealed to donors to contribute funds quickly to ensure the regular delivery of food to the refugees. UNHCR said they were surviving on aid that increasingly arrived late or was insufficient.