By David Lewis
ZIGUINCHOR, Senegal (Reuters) - When he took office in 2000, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade promised to end decades of separatist rebellion in his country's southern Casamance region within his first 100 days in power.
Over a decade later, as Wade hunts votes for a controversial third stint in power, he is still proposing peace plans - this time offering farming projects to lure rebels out of the bush in a bid to end one of Africa's longest running insurgencies.
But as Sunday's election nears, an often dormant insurrection has ticked up, with rebels raiding isolated army outposts, killing and capturing soldiers. Lines between independence struggle and criminality appear blurred amid smuggling, racketeering and multiplying rebel factions.
Senegal's polls have provoked heated debate over whether Wade should be able to stand or if the vote can be free and fair.
Yet the on-off low-intensity rebellion, now entering its fourth decade, has hardly registered in campaigning even though it remains an unhealed blemish on Senegal's otherwise enviable reputation as the only country in mainland West Africa that has not suffered a coup or a civil war since independence.
"People are talking about transparency in the elections but not about the people who won't be able to vote at all," said Nouha Cisse, who heads the APAC coalition of local organizations involved in the peace process in Casamance.
Fighting in recent weeks north of Ziguinchor, the southern region's main town, has emptied villages, adding to tens of thousands who have been displaced over the years. According to SudQuotidien newspaper, this will prevent voting in 51 villages.
While not reaching the level of violence of other African conflicts, the insurgency has left Casamance, a fertile, beach-fringed chunk of land wedged between Gambia to the north and Guinea-Bissau to the south, cut off from the rest of the country and suspended between "neither war nor peace".
The fighting has destroyed hundreds of villages and rendered thousands of hectares of arable land, suitable for producing rice, vegetables and fruit unusable due to unexploded ammunition and landmines. Foreign travel warnings have hamstrung a potentially lucrative tourism industry in the region.
Ziguinchor, a riverside town with crumbling colonial-era buildings, has a sleepy provincial feel, though travelers and residents complain that not far outside rebels and bandits roam and armed hold-ups on the baobab-lined roads are common.
Planes ferrying in visitors must share the town airport's small apron with a pair of helicopter gunships regularly dispatched to support soldiers fighting in the nearby bush.
The conflict remains a thorn in regional relations and also risks being exploited by regional drug smuggling networks.
HUNTING RIFLES TO HEAVY WEAPONS
Launched in 1982 and led for years by Catholic priest Father Diamacoune Senghor, the Movement of Democratic Forces for Casamance (MFDC) tapped into historical, cultural and geographical differences between Senegal's lush, isolated south and the rest of the largely arid, Muslim-dominated north.
Resentment among the southern Diola people against the Wolof, Senegal's dominant ethnic group who have traditionally wielded more economic and political clout in the capital Dakar, has helped stir the rebellion. Initial violent attempts by Dakar to stamp out the rebels also brought it new recruits.
The rebels have sometimes stepped up raids towards the end of the year to commemorate their founding in late 1982.
A recent spate of attacks, which killed about 15 soldiers and left five in rebel hands, could also be an attempt by the forest insurgents to raise their profile ahead of potential talks mediated by the Catholic Church's Sant'Egidio Community.
Senegal's army has launched "mopping up" operations but after years of stagnation, few in the south believe in a military solution: "If Senegal had the military means to resolve it, they would have done it in the last 30 years," a senior Senegalese official told Reuters, asking not to be named.
"If we have failed to resolve the crisis it is because the army and the state underestimated the rebellion," the official said. "They moved from hunting rifles to AK 47 (assault rifles). Now people have realized they have heavy weapons."
The source said the Casamance rebels' arsenal now includes 12.7 mm machineguns and rocket launchers. Three sources also said one of the Senegalese military's helicopter gunships had been grounded by damage from rebel fire in fighting in February.
Over the years, a string of peace deals have been signed but never implemented amid the splintering of factions within the insurgent camp and perceptions in Casamance that Dakar has never taken any peace process seriously anyway.
A common complaint is that officials dispatched by Dakar - nicknamed "The Casamanace Men" - have sought to buy peace by paying off rebels, rather than addressing the root causes of the rebellion, and then have ignored the conflict once back home.
Cisse said the MFDC has long been weakened by rifts, but this cash over the last decade had fuelled even more splits as rebels vie for a share. "This money has given birth to the entrepreneurs of the conflict ... it has complicated things. It has crystallized divisions," he told Reuters.
Analysts say a low-level 'war economy', which benefits combatants on both sides and centers on illegal logging, the cashew nut industry and illegal cannabis growing and smuggling, has undermined any sense of urgency to end the conflict.
There are fears too the zone could get sucked into the lucrative regional cocaine trade, as smugglers, ferrying the drug into neighbouring Guinea-Bissau by the tonne, seek more uncontrolled paths to markets in Africa and Europe.
This mix of rebellion, criminality and neglect has left many baffled and skeptical over repeated promises for peace. "We don't understand all that," said fish trader Mansatta Diediou.
Linked to Dakar only by costly flights, a twice-weekly boat trip or a lengthy and treacherous trip by road through rebel checkpoints and Gambia, the sense of isolation is palpable.
Several large hotels on the Cap Skirring beach strip have shuttered in recent years as visitor numbers have tumbled to around 15,000 per year, down from 50,000 a decade ago.
Jean-Pascal Ehemba, head of Casamance's chamber of commerce, said simply opening up the region's economy would help. "If given a chance to work and export, (the rebels) would be able to earn money and come out of the bush," he said.
But history and regional politics play a role too, as Casamance's international borders mean little to rebels who have family or ethnic links to both the north and the south, allowing them to melt away to safety after attacks.
The involvement of Casamance fighters in Guinea-Bissau's independence war left a historical debt, paid back by some members of the former Portuguese colony's army backing the rebels at various stages of the conflict.
Meanwhile, analysts say Yaya Jammeh, president of Gambia, a small nation surrounded by Senegal, supports the MFDC in a bid for leverage over Dakar, with whom relations have been tricky.
Senegal cut ties with Tehran last year after it said Iranian weapons were supplied via Gambia to the rebels.
A diplomat following the conflict said the prospect of the Catholic Sant'Egidio group's mediation may offer talks a new lease of life but Dakar's neighbors had to be part of any deal.
"There is so much cross-border movement, any resolution of the problem has to involve Jammeh and Guinea-Bissau," said the diplomat. "It makes is complicated but not impossible."
(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Sophie Hares)