PARIS, MAY 4 -- Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid and King Hassan II of Morocco today held their first meeting in four years, in a Saudi-backed effort to end the 11-year war in the disputed Western Sahara.
Saudi Arabia's King Fahd was present at the meeting, held in an air-conditioned tent straddling the Moroccan-Algerian border, news agencies said. Reuter quoted Moroccan officials as saying that Fahd shuttled between the separate tents of Hassan and Bendjedid before bringing them into a face-to-face session for 75 minutes.
Coupled with last week's secret meeting between rival Iraqi and Syrian presidents, the Algerian-Moroccan encounter was interpreted by Arab diplomats as a Saudi drive to narrow differences on major inter-Arab disputes and possibly pave the way for a long-delayed Arab League summit. A Kuwaiti newspaper, Al Qabas, today quoted a high-ranking Saudi official as saying Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah took part in the secret meeting between Hafez Assad of Syria and Saddam Hussein of Iraq last week in Jordan.
Jordan's information minister, Mohammed Khatib, denied knowledge of the meeting, reported yesterday by The Washington Post, news agencies said. "These are press rumors, we know nothing about it," Khatib said.
Despite reports of Saudi financial inducements to all four leaders in the two meetings, Arab diplomats warned against expecting quick results from either the summit in Jordan or the Moroccan-Algerian talks.
Bendjedid and Hassan last met in 1983 -- at the same site as today's talks -- but failed to end the Saharan conflict. The war began after Spain's withdrawal from the former Spanish Sahara in 1975. Morocco claims sovereignty there, but is opposed by Saharan tribesmen who have been fighting, with Algerian support, for independence.
Morocco recently completed a 1,200-mile defensive "wall" along the borders of Algeria and Mauritania, largely denying the Algerian-backed guerrillas of the Polisario access to the disputed territory.
The diplomats said that the summit was expected to help lessen the risk of a direct conflict between Algeria and Morocco, which appeared to have been growing in recent weeks. Little more was likely to be accomplished at the meeting, they said.
Algerian sources have suggested that depressed oil and gas income has made Algeria's support of the Polisario military effort less affordable.
Still, the diplomats reasoned that President Bendjedid would not want to be seen losing face in a compromise. Key elements of Algeria's ruling party, the National Liberation Front, and the military establishment reportedly remain as committed to the Polisario cause as they were in 1976 when Algeria first backed an independent Saharan republic.
Algerian sources have hinted recently that Bendjedid was willing to appoint commissions to work out a compromise that would eventually grant the Western Sahara local autonomy, but allow Morocco to control defense and foreign policy. Arab sources have suggested that as part of a settlement, Morocco would grant Algeria an extraterritorial corridor across the western Sahara to the Atlantic plus a share in developing the region's mineral wealth.
Last week's reported meeting between Assad and Saddam Hussein is unlikely to herald a quick end to the bitter rivalry between Iraq and Syria. Instead, its significance may be that it was apparently the first time Saudi Arabia had coordinated such a major diplomatic initiative with the Soviet Union, according to Arab diplomats.
Despite the meeting in Jordan, analysts did not expect Syria to break with Iran. Iran and Iraq are at war. Only last week, Syria renewed an oil deal with Tehran under which Iran is reported to be supplying the Assad government with a million free tons of oil and another million tons at the current world price.
But analysts believe the Jordanian meeting could help narrow differences enough to allow both Iraq and Syria to attend an Arab League summit in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, sometime after Ramadan, the current Islamic month of fasting.