Sunday, October 31, 2004

TUNIS, Tunisia — Algeria has canceled massive military parades scheduled for today in a move seen as an effort to reduce escalating tension with Morocco.

The cancellation followed reports of troop movements along the Algerian-Moroccan border in connection with a dispute over the future of the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony seized by Morocco in 1975.

Algeria is sheltering about 100,000 refugees from the Western Sahara as well as the government of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). The rebel group challenges Morocco’s claim to the rocky wasteland, which is thought to hide still unexplored wealth, including an estimated 10 million tons of phosphate.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said he ordered the cancellation of the display of Algerian military might to “avoid erroneous interpretations” after the Moroccan press accused Algeria of beefing up its border garrisons to seize parts of Morocco’s territory.

“This press campaign benefits no one, it contains no truth,” Mr. Bouteflika said.

The military parades were to mark the 50th anniversary of the start of the Algerian War of Independence, which lasted seven years, caused a million deaths and drove France from the North African territory it conquered in 1830.

The quarrel over the Western Sahara has poisoned relations between Morocco and Algeria and paralyzed the completion of the Union of Arab Maghreb, an entity consisting of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania.

Mr. Bouteflika is urging a referendum among the Saharan refugees and other inhabitants of the area, a concept rejected by Morocco, which considers the Western Sahara its “southern province.”

At the U.N. General Assembly in September, Mr. Bouteflika described Morocco as a “colonial power.” Morocco, in turn, accused Algeria of plans to seize the Western Sahara.

Subsequently, Mohamed Abdelaziz, president of the SADR, warned U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that he intended to break an uneasy cease-fire imposed in 1991.

Benjamin Stora, a Frenchman who is an analyst of North African affairs, said, “The engine propelling North Africa to unity has broken down; the relations between Algeria and Morocco are poisoned.”

The two countries clashed over portions of the desert around the oases of Hassi Beida and Figuig in 1963, with veteran Moroccan troops easily defeating Algeria’s new conscript army.

In one of his last statements on the Western Sahara, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI said, “I have settled the Saharan question which has been poisoning us. We agree to a fair solution within the framework of Moroccan sovereignty.”

Since the seizure of the desert area, Morocco has invested more than $2 billion in colonizing it. Its military presence there costs $700 million per year, while the United Nations spends $5 million per month on its small peacekeeping force.

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