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Clashes in Western Sahara despite calls for restraint

GUERGUERAT: A handout picture published by the Royal Moroccan Army Facebook page on Friday shows tents used by the Polisario Front ablaze near the Mauritanian border in Western Sahara after the intervention of the Moroccan armed forces. – AFP

RABAT: The pro-independence Polisario Front yesterday reported clashes in the Western Sahara after Morocco launched an operation in the buffer zone in the disputed territory, as the UN led calls for restraint. Tensions in the former Spanish colony have sparked concern around the globe, with the United Nations, the African Union, Algeria and Mauritania urging both sides to respect a 1991 ceasefire.

But senior Polisario official Mohamed Salem Ould Salek said yesterday that the ceasefire supervised by the United Nations is a “thing of the past”. “Fighting is continuing…in Guerguerat,” Ould Salek, a foreign minister of the Polisario-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), told AFP. SADR President and Polisario Secretary-General Brahim Ghali said he had “declared war” on Friday and announced “the resumption of armed actions in order to protect the inalienable rights of our people”.

On Friday, Morocco announced that its troops launched a military operation in the buffer zone of Guerguerat in order to reopen the highway to Mauritania, accusing the Polisario of blocking the road. Dozens of truck drivers have been stranded for days at Guerguerat, the last Moroccan-held stop before the road enters the buffer zone along the border where the Polisario has kept a periodic presence. The road is key for trade with the rest of Africa.

Kuwait supports measures taken by Morocco to ensure the smooth flow of goods and individuals in a normal and unimpeded manner in the Guerguerat buffer zone between Morocco and Mauritania, the Kuwaiti foreign ministry said yesterday. In a press statement, the ministry renewed Kuwait’s firm and principled position in support of Morocco’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, expressing its rejection of any actions or practices that may affect traffic in this area. It called for restraint and a commitment to dialogue and a peaceful solution, in accordance with international law.

Late Friday the SADR defense ministry said Sahrawi forces had carried out “massive attacks” during the afternoon at multiple points along Morocco’s 2,700 km long defensive wall. It said they had inflicted “human and material damage on the enemy”. The claim was denied in Rabat by a “well informed source” which said that Morocco’s army chief of staff and the UN’s MINURSO mission did not report any attacks.

Morocco’s military, later Friday, said it had secured the Guerguerat crossing between Morocco and Mauritania by installing “a security cordon” along its desert wall. The unrest in Western Sahara has sparked concern around the world. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has expressed “grave concern regarding the consequences of the latest developments” that erupted despite UN efforts to avoid an escalation. Algeria, which backs the Polisario, and Mauritania have called for restraint and respect of the 1991 ceasefire. They were echoed by the African Union, France, Russia and Spain.

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 lucrative ocean fisheries. 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. The Polisario demands a referendum on self-determination as set out in the 1991 ceasefire. The vote has been repeatedly postponed due to disputes between Rabat and the Polisario over voter rolls and the question to be asked. – Agencies

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