LAAYOUNE, Western Sahara, April 16 - (Reuters) - In one of the most inhospitable places on earth, the Sahrawi people wait to hear their fate after more than three decades in limbo.
The inhabitants of Western Sahara saw their lives turned upside down in 1975 when Morocco took control of the desert territory in the most isolated corner of northwest Africa after colonial power Spain withdrew.
A low-level war ensued, in which tens of thousands of Sahrawis were displaced to camps on a barren plateau across the Algerian border. Since 1991 United Nations troops have kept watch over an uneasy peace.
Now Morocco is proposing to break the impasse with a plan for limited autonomy in the territory. Independence movement Polisario, backed by Morocco’s regional arch-rival Algeria, rejected the plan before even seeing the details.
The European Union has given the Moroccan offer a guarded welcome in the hope it will kick-start negotiations to resolve Africa’s oldest territorial dispute, which has poisoned the regional political climate and stymied economic development.
Polisario, in turn, has put forward its own proposals for a settlement, saying it is ready to negotiate with Morocco on holding a referendum that would offer a choice between independence, autonomy or integration into Morocco.
But the protagonists seem as far apart as ever. Morocco says any talks should be limited to how to implement autonomy.
Native Sahrawis say they have got used to waiting, so refused to get their hopes up when told the U.N. Security Council was due to debate the Moroccan plan this week.
“I know about the Moroccan project and it’s no good,” said jobless Sahrawi Mohammed, 27, as he pondered a mint tea in his sparsely furnished living room in a poor district of Laayoune.
“Everyone here wants this dispute to end. We cannot bear to see the international community just sit and watch.”
A constant wind whips across the rocky plains of Western Sahara, a land larger than Britain with around 260,000 inhabitants where temperatures reach over 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade.
Tens of thousands of Sahrawis have grown up in refugee camps inside the Algerian border and the frustration of a people accustomed to roaming freely is channeled into broad support for Polisario, even though critics question the movement’s democratic credentials.
Morocco accuses Polisario leadership of dictatorial rule and human rights violations in Tindouf.
In turn, Polisario accuses Morocco of brutally suppressing pro-independence demonstrations and treating the Sahrawis living under Moroccan rule as foreigners in their own land.
In 1975 Morocco’s King Hassan, claiming centuries-old rights over the territory, called on his compatriots to march into the southern desert as Spain departed.
Many governments have extended diplomatic ties to Polisario and recognize its claim to a “Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic”.
An International Court of Justice advisory body found there were some legal ties between Western Sahara and Morocco but this did not imply sovereignty.
Morocco has cemented its hold on the territory, where lucrative phosphate reserves and rich fishing waters make for an attractive prize. Many Moroccans have been drawn to Western Sahara with generous public salaries and tax breaks. The new arrivals now outnumber the indigenous population.
Critics of Moroccan policy say its proposal is a stalling tactic to maintain a status quo heavily balanced in its favor.
They accuse Rabat of illegally exploiting the territory’s resources before its future is settled. Last year Morocco sealed an EU fisheries deal that included allowing European boats to fish off Western Sahara’s coast.
After oil was found in commercial quantities in neighboring Mauritania, Morocco and Polisario signed competing deals with U.S. and French oil firms to explore off Western Sahara.
“Morocco pays us to sit on our hands and do nothing,” said Hassan, another jobless Sahrawi. “In return it exploits the riches of our land.”
But some say the obstacles to a settlement have less to do with access to resources and more with pride and dignity.
Neither Morocco nor Algeria want to be seen giving ground on matters of principle and abhor the thought of losing face.
Independence would be seen as an unpardonable climbdown for many in Morocco, where the “Green March” of 1975 is commemorated with a public holiday. An image of the marchers adorns bank notes, topped by a dove with a copy of the Koran in its beak.
The walls of Laayoune’s most prestigious hotel the Massira are adorned with paintings and a mural depicting Hassan II as a hero leading the chosen ones south into the Sahara in styles reminiscent of Soviet-era propaganda.
King Mohammed said last year he would not give up “a single grain of the sand” of “our beloved Sahara”.
Now the big powers appear determined to push the two sides to the negotiating table and revive a peace process that has stagnated since U.N. envoy James Baker left in 2004 after a referendum plan he proposed came to nothing.
The United States is impatient for a deal in the hope it will bring more stability and cooperation between North African states, helping combat terrorist groups thought to be fighting units in the regions bordering the Sahara.
But no one expects the Moroccan proposal to bring a sudden breakthrough.
“The Moroccans are in no hurry. They are still pushing their plan,” said George Joffe of the Centre for International Studies in Cambridge, England. “The only thing they have to worry about is if Polisario can’t restrain their young people and attack.”