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Algeria closes airspace to all Moroccan planes as dispute deepens

Algiers said it had taken the action due to 'provocations and hostile practices' by its neighbour
A source at Royal Air Maroc said the closure would only affect 15 flights weekly, linking Morocco with Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt (AFP)

Algeria said on Wednesday it had closed its airspace to all Moroccan planes due to "provocations and hostile practices" by its neighbour, in the latest dispute between the countries at odds mainly over Western Sahara.

The move comes after Algeria broke off diplomatic ties with Morocco on 24 August, accusing it of "hostile actions" following months of heightened tensions between the two countries.

At that time, Morocco called the severing of ties "completely unjustified" and said the decision was based on "false, even absurd pretexts".

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Relations between the neighbours have been tense for decades due to Algeria's support for the Polisario Front, which demands a self-determination referendum in Western Sahara, while Morocco, which controls around 80 percent of the desert territory, has offered only autonomy.

The Algerian presidency said in a statement on Wednesday that the decision had been made "to shut its airspace immediately to all civilian and military aircraft as well as to those registered in Morocco".

The decision was announced after a meeting of the High Security Council chaired by President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, AFP reported.

The presidency said the meeting examined the situation on Algeria's border with Morocco and took into account "the continuation of provocations and hostile practices by Morocco," without providing details.

'Civilised way'

The decision will not have a major immediate effect because Algeria closed off air links in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic, reopening to seven countries in June, of which Morocco was not one.

A source close to the state-owned carrier Air Algerie said no direct commercial flights between Algeria and Morocco had flown since.

"Algerians travelling to Morocco transfer via Tunis," the source said on condition of anonymity.

The decision will more immediately effect Moroccan flights that have routes over Algerian territory.

A source at Royal Air Maroc (RAM) told Reuters the closure would only affect 15 flights weekly, linking Morocco with Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt.

The source, who asked to remain anonymous, described the impact on RAM as insignificant and said the relevant flights could reroute over the Mediterranean.

Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra told CNN International on Tuesday that cutting diplomatic ties was "sending the right message" to Morocco.

"This is a civilised way of putting an end to a situation that could not last anymore without running the risk of costing more casualties and taking the two countries into a path that would not be desirable," said Lamamra.

'Unnatural confrontation'

In July, Morocco's King Mohammed VI deplored the tensions and invited Tebboune "to make wisdom prevail" and "work in unison for the development of relations" between the neighbouring countries.

Earlier this month, more than 200 Moroccan and Algerian civil society figures also appealed for a "return to reason" after Algiers' decision to cut diplomatic ties.

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Intellectuals, academics and other civil society actors, most of them Moroccan, signed a petition rejecting the "current situation which could lead to an unnatural confrontation... contrary to the interests of the two peoples and the region".

Algeria is the key foreign backer of the Polisario Front, which has for decades fought Morocco for the independence of Western Sahara.

Morocco sees the former Spanish colony as an integral part of its territory.

The sparsely-populated desert territory boasts significant phosphate resources and a long Atlantic coastline with access to rich fishing waters.

Algiers was also angered by Morocco's normalisation of ties with Israel last year as a quid pro quo for US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Rabat had severed diplomatic relations with Algeria in 1976 for several years after Algiers recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, proclaimed by the Polisario.

The border between Morocco and Algeria has been closed since 1994 and Algeria has indicated it will divert gas exports from a pipeline running through Morocco, which was due to be renewed later this year.

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