Morocco announces military operation to halt Polisario’s ‘provocations’

The Moroccan foreign ministry explained it had been forced to act by the actions of Polisario fighters and the failure of its own appeals and those of the UN peacekeeping mission MINURSO.
Friday 13/11/2020
A file picture shows a UN vehicle driving past the headquarters of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) in Laayoune. (AFP)
A file picture shows a UN vehicle driving past the headquarters of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) in Laayoune. (AFP)

RABAT--Morocco announced Friday that its troops have launched an operation in no man’s land on the southern border of the Western Sahara to end “provocations” by the Algeria-backed Polisario Front.

Rabat said its troops would “put a stop to the blockade” of trucks travelling between Moroccan-controlled areas of the disputed territory and neighbouring Mauritania, and “restore free circulation of civilian and commercial traffic.”

The Moroccan foreign ministry explained it had been forced to act by the actions of Polisario fighters and the failure of its own appeals and those of the UN peacekeeping mission MINURSO.

Banditry at key gateway

“The Polisario and its militias, who have infiltrated the zone since October 21, have been carrying out acts of banditry, blocking traffic and continually harassing MINURSO military observers,” a ministry statement said.

“After having committed itself to the greatest restraint, in the face of provocations from the militias of the Polisario, the Kingdom of Morocco had no other choice but to assume its responsibilities in order to put an end to the deadlock situation generated by these actions and restore free civil and commercial movement,” the ministry added in its statement.

Rabat argued that Polisario’s “acts undermine the chances of any re-launch of the political process sought by the international community.”

Since 2016, Polisario has multiplied “dangerous and intolerable acts in this buffer zone, in violation of military agreements, in contempt for the calls to order launched by the UN Secretary General and in violation of the resolutions of the Security Council, in particular 2414 and 2440, which ordered the Polisario to put an end to these destabilising acts,” according to the Moroccan Foreign Ministry.

A senior ministry official said that for some three weeks, around 70 armed men had been “attacking truck drivers, blocking their passage and engaging in extortion.”

Some 200 Moroccan truck drivers said on November 5 that they were stuck in difficult conditions on the Mauritanian side of the desert border.

Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani delivers a speech during a meeting of Moroccan political parties on April 9, 2018, in Laayoune. AFP
Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani delivers a speech during a meeting of Moroccan political parties on April 9, 2018, in Laayoune. (AFP)

They appealed to both Rabat and Nouakchott for help returning home after “Polisario fighters” blocked their passage.

They urged UN peacekeepers to “play their role in protecting the buffer zone and the border crossing, which provides a gateway for work for thousands of drivers, farmers and traders.”

End of a ceasefire

Following today’s military development, the Polisario Front said a three-decade-old ceasefire in the disputed Western Sahara was over Friday.

“War has started, the Moroccan side has liquidated the ceasefire,” senior Polisario official Mohamed Salem Ould Salek said, describing the action by Rabat as an “aggression.”

“Sahrawi troops are engaged in legitimate self-defence and are responding to the Moroccan troops,” said Ould Salek, who serves as foreign minister of the Polisario-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

In its statement on Monday ,the group warned it would “respond vigorously in self-defence and to defend its national sovereignty” in the event of any Moroccan incursion.

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

Highly prized territory

The Western Sahara, a vast swathe of desert on Africa’s Atlantic coast, is a disputed former Spanish colony whose population has historically maintained allegiance ties to Morocco’s monarchy.

Rabat controls 80% of the territory, including its phosphate deposits and its lucrative ocean fisheries.

The Polisario’s forces are largely confined to the sparsely populated desert interior and refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria, the independence group’s main foreign backer.

Peacekeeping force MINURSO has patrolled a buffer zone between the two sides since a UN-brokered ceasefire took effect in 1991.

The village of Guergerat in the far south of the Western Sahara is the last village under Moroccan control.

Beyond it is a strip of desert where Polisario fighters have maintained a periodic presence in recent years.

An informal trade has grown up exporting Moroccan fresh produce to the Mauritanian coastal city of Nouadhibou but to the growing anger of Rabat it has periodically fallen foul of the Polisario.

Morocco, which maintains that Western Sahara is an integral part of the kingdom, has offered autonomy for the territory but insists it will retain sovereignty over the “southern provinces” which it considers an integral part of the country’s borders.

The Polisario has demanded  a referendum on “self-determination” based on criteria favourable to its stances on the conflict, which were not accepted by Morocco.

Negotiations on the territory’s future involving Morocco, the Polisario, Algeria and Mauritania have been suspended for some time.