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Ceasefire declared over as Morocco launches Western Sahara military operation

Army mobilisation into disputed region prompts Polisario Front to accuse Morocco of 'liquidation' of 30-year agreement
Soldiers of the pro-independence Polisario Front stand before a Sahrawi flag at the Boujdour refugee camp near Tindouf in Western Algeria (AFP)

The Moroccan army has launched a military operation in a buffer zone of Western Sahara, leading the Polisario Front independence movement to declare a three decade long ceasefire "over".

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 and campaigning for autonomy.

'Sahrawi troops are engaged in legitimate self-defence and are responding to the Moroccan troops'

- Mohamed Salem Ould Salek, Polisario official

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

In response, the Polisario said that Morocco had violated the terms of a September 1991 ceasefire agreement.

"War has started, the Moroccan side has liquidated the ceasefire," senior Polisario official Mohamed Salem Ould Salek told AFP, 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.

Stranded truck drivers

Last week, around 200 Moroccan truck drivers appealed to Moroccan and Mauritanian authorities for help, saying they were stranded on the Mauritania 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.