All quiet on the Western Sahara front
By Tom PfeifferReutersTuesday, April 17, 2007; 9:08 AM
THE BERM, Western Sahara (Reuters) - Captain Brendan Lyons gazes into the depths of the shimmering, rock-strewn wastes of Western Sahara trying to spot soldiers of the Polisario independence front.
Nothing appears to be moving on the grey plain beyond the Berm, a 1,500 km (940 mile) sand wall that separates a 100,000 strong Moroccan army from about 12,000 Polisario soldiers.
In the deep silence, the idea of a battle seems fanciful.
A 16-year war ended in 1991 and hope grew that the territory would be reunited.
The blue berets arrived here that same year after the U.N. brokered a ceasefire, with a brief to organize a referendum for self-determination of the local population.
The vote has never happened and appears as distant a prospect as ever.
"You might think we'd be frustrated here but really we're not," said Captain Lyons.
"When I served in Lebanon, we were armed but all you could do was watch as Shia militias fired off mortars 20 yards from your position and the Israelis fire back."
"OK, we've got no guns here. But we are keeping the peace."
Around 200 Minurso observers sweep the desert strip either side of the Berm with helicopters and off-road vehicles making sure both sides hold to agreed limits on the movement and build-up of troops and equipment.
"The area we are operating in is the same as Great Britain or half of France and the resources we have are absolutely tiny," said Julian Harston, Minurso's head of mission.
The almost constant movement needed to monitor the opposing forces can be a challenge in a region of rocky plateaus, dried up river beds and temperatures so high that planes and helicopters are sometimes grounded.
Fierce sandstorms can cut visibility to less than two meters (yards).
DANGER OF LANDMINES
Adding to the danger, millions of landmines and unexploded weapons have been left behind by successive armies. The mines are often placed near wells used by Bedouin herdsmen or trees offering shade.
Last year a small girl was killed by a mine and her brother seriously injured.
"In the last few months we've seen four deaths due to mines," said French Major Jean-Jacques Quillien, whose group oversaw the destruction of 21 mines last year with Morocco's cooperation.
Minurso officers are cagey about the last time ceasefire terms were violated. But they say only camels ever stray into the most sensitive area, a mine-infested 5 km (3 mile) wide buffer zone running along the Polisario side of the Berm.
Moroccan troops are stationed at regular observation points along the wall and live in small camps, many equipped with small comforts such as bakeries, hen houses and satellite TV.
Some have spent over 15 years in the desert, drawn by the offer of extra leave and generous pay.
Polisario is formed mainly of conscripts based in small units whose strength lies in knowledge of the terrain. Military experts say they would quickly adopt guerrilla hit and run tactics if Morocco ever pushed beyond the wall.
The tense atmosphere means a minor misunderstanding could quickly become a scuffle then a full-scale battle, igniting the entire region.
Because contacts between Morocco and Polisario are rare, Minurso acts as the eyes and ears of both sides.
When French motor rallies cross the Berm, Morocco often neglects to tell the organizers they need Polisario's permission to pass through, generating an indignation that Minurso must move quickly to defuse.
"It appears the risks are increasing," said Kenneth Albret, military assistant to Minurso's first commander.
"As the situation continues, the younger generation seems to be heating up and agitation is growing in the Polisario camps."
© 2007 Reuters