Published On: Fri, Nov 13th, 2020

Morocco launches military operation in Western Sahara buffer zone

Morocco launches military operation in Western Sahara buffer zone

Army mobilisation into disputed region risks collapse of fragile ceasefire agreement

MEE and agencies Fri, 11/13/2020 – 07:45

Uniformed soldiers of the pro-independence Polisario Front of the disputed Western Sahara stand before a Sahrawi flag flying at the Boujdour refugee camp near the town of Tindouf in Western Algeria (AFP)

The Moroccan army has launched a military operation in a border zone of Western Sahara, risking the collapse of a ceasefire established with the region’s Polisario Front independence movement.

The army said in a statement it had launched an operation in Guerguerat, located on the southern coast of the disputed region, along the road leading to Mauritania, some 380km north of the capital Nouakchott.

The statement denounced what it described as “the provocations of the Polisario”, who have spent decades fighting for autonomy.

The Guerguerat buffer zone is patrolled by a United Nations peacekeeping force.

The move comes just days after the Polisario said it would break a ceasefire with Morocco if Rabat moved troops or civilians into the area.

“The Moroccan occupying forces began last night to move a large number of police and other security forces into the region,” the Polisario Front independence movement said in a statement on Monday.

It warned that “the entry of any Moroccan military, security or civil entity” into the Guerguerat buffer zone “will be considered as a flagrant aggression to which the Sahrawi side will respond vigorously in self-defence and to defend its national sovereignty”.

“This will also mean the end of the ceasefire and the beginning of a new war across the region,” added the statement seen by AFP.

“The Sahrawi government also holds the United Nations and the Security Council in particular responsible for the safety and security of Sahrawi civilians,” the Polisario statement added.

Stranded truck drivers

Last week, around 200 Moroccan truck drivers appealed to Moroccan and Mauritanian authorities for help, saying they were stranded on the Mauritanian side of the border near Guerguerat.

In a statement carried by the Mauritanian news agency Alwiam, the produce truck drivers said they were returning from Mauritania and sub-Saharan Africa but “militias affiliated with separatists” had stopped them from crossing.

In recent weeks, Moroccan media outlets said Sahrawi separatists had set up roadblocks and stopped passage across the border, but AFP was not able to independently verify the reports.

The UN also cited isolated incidents at Guerguerat in a recent report.

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Western Sahara, a vast swathe of desert on Africa’s Atlantic coast, is a disputed former Spanish colony.

Rabat controls 80 percent of the territory, including its phosphate deposits and its fishing waters.

Morocco, which maintains that Western Sahara is an integral part of the kingdom, has offered autonomy but insists it will retain sovereignty.

The Algerian-backed Polisario Front, which fought a war for independence from 1975 to 1991, demands a referendum on self-determination.

The two sides signed a ceasefire in September 1991 under the aegis of the UN after 16 years of war, but the planned referendum has been repeatedly postponed due to a dispute between Rabat and the Polisario over the composition of the electorate and the status of the territory.

Negotiations on Western Sahara involving Morocco, the Polisario, Algeria and Mauritania have been suspended for several months.

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