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Threat of war emerges again in Western Sahara

Moroccan military incursions into disputed region of Western Sahara threaten to restart Polisario armed struggle against "occupation"
Moroccans shout slogans during demonstration against killing of security forces in Western Sahara (AFP)

As the situation remained unchanged in the Western Sahara for almost 25 years, the turmoil in the Middle East left the region out of the limelight, but recent tensions in the village of Gueguerat are ringing alarm bells of the possibility of a new war in North Africa.

The Polisario - the Sahrawi independence movement - and Morocco have been fighting over the Western Sahara since 1975, when the former colonial powers withdrew from the region without organising a referendum for the Sahrawi people, leaving the issue unresolved to this day.

A UN resolution was passed in 1991 to organise a plebiscite on the basis of choosing an independent Sahrawi state under the leadership of the Polisario or becoming part of Morocco. This option has been blocked by Rabat, however.

Now, more than half of the Sahrawi population live in the Moroccan-occupied territories of Western Sahara, while those who fled during the 16-year guerrilla war live in refugee camps in the southwestern Algerian region of Tindouf.

On 11 August 2015, the Moroccan royal army broke through its military berm towards the buffer zone in the disputed Western Sahara territory. The Polisario accused Morocco of violating the ceasefire agreement. Morocco justified the operation by saying it was clearing Guerguerat, a desert village 5km from the Atlantic Ocean and 10km from the Mauritanian borders, of drug traffickers and smugglers.

Morocco's Interior Ministry said security forces and customs officials had been carrying out an operation near the Mauritania border aimed at dismantling "smuggling rings and illegal commercial trade" in the area, according to AP.

Moroccan forces paved a 2.4km-long road during the operation. In response, the Polisario established a military post, where the two foes face off 120 metres from each other. The UN mission has been mediating and observing the two parties' movements to deter any escalation. 

During the last two months, the secretary-general of the Polisario, Brahim Ghali, repeatedly visited the different Sahrawi military regions spanning the area his forces control. This new approach reached its peak when Ghali paid a televised visit to Laguera, within the tension strip, where the Sahrawi and Moroccan armies stand head to head.

Abdallahi Lahbib Balal is the Polisario minster of defence and has been a major player in a recent gearing up of the Sahrawi Army.

“We briefed the UN Security Council on the dangerous situation in Al Guerguera, but it was not taken seriously," he told Middle East Eye.

"So we decided to establish a military post to stop the Moroccan army from advancing south."

Balal said his government has taken a decision to not accept the situation as it had been before the Guerguerat crisis.

READ: Morocco's claim to Western Sahara dismissed by European court

"We have seen that some of the civil and political components of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) have been expelled, and they have been finding difficulties to return to Western Sahara," he said.

"The MINURSO is in our land to organise a referendum, not to keep the status quo. We do not accept the previous stalemated status anymore."

Balal summoned the MINURSO chief back in August to brief him on the Polisario position concerning the expulsion of MINURSO staff from the Moroccan-controlled part of Western Sahara when former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon described Morocco’s presence in the territory as an “occupation”.

Morocco then expelled some of the UN mission staffers in Western Sahara. Months later, it agreed to their return.

However, the UN-based Innercity Press has frequently questioned the capabilities of MINURSO, which a UN secretary-general spokesman has described as “not fully functional”.

“Not allowing some of the MINURSO to return is more than a provocation because this leads to the end of the MINURSO mission in the region. The MINURSO's real mission is to organize a transparent referendum for the Sahrawi people,” Balal said.

Military 'ultimate priority'

The opening of this new confrontation frontier in Western Sahara has driven the newly elected leader Ghali to declare that the “ultimate priority (is for) the military”.

Nafaa Mustapha was the commander of the first Polisario battalion, which was charged with entrenching the Polisario post in Geurguerat.

“We noticed the establishment of Moroccan military tents, trucks and tanks on 11 August," he told MEE. "Five days later, they swept the area and confiscated all vehicles there."

“On 20 August we were given orders to position ourselves to stop the Moroccans from advancing. They flew drones over three times to detect us. We told the MINURSO that we were going to shoot them if they flew again. So they did not.”

The strategic significance of Laguera, where Guerguerat is situated, provides the Polisario with an entrance to the Atlantic Ocean and even Dakhla, which is famous for its tourism and fishery reserves.

“Laguera is a strategic frontline because it is an open port to Europe and to the Sahrawi island, Dakhla," Mustapha said.

The Polisario minister of Defence, Balal, said this demands that measures be taken and emphasised that the Sahrawi leadership had ordered them.

"We have ordered our forces to stay alert for all possible scenarios. This call has been echoed throughout our military presence to practise sovereignty over the territory we have liberated," he said.

"The MINURSO forces are not there at night to monitor at all. We are ready for anything. "

Even so, Balal confirmed that there have so far "been no clashes between the Sahrawi and Moroccan soldiers in Guerguerat”.

Balal said the Polisario has "not set a date to take up arms again, but we are preparing our army for all possibilities".

Fear of the Guerguerat crisis spiralling into another Western Sahara war is prevalent because the Polisario has reaffirmed its seriousness in returning to an armed struggle, especially after more than two decades of stalemate.

“Guerguerat is part of Lagouira and it’s a liberated territory; we reserve the right to respond to any expansion attempts from the Moroccan Kingdom," Balal said.

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