Trou­ble stirs in sands of Western Sa­hara

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Trou­ble is stir­ring in the re­mote sands of dis­puted Western Sa­hara in an area near the Mau­ri­ta­nian bor­der where moves by the pro-in­de­pen­dence Polis­ario Front have riled Morocco. The Al­giers-backed Polis­ario has set up a new mil­i­tary post in the Guer­guerat district on the At­lantic coast, within a stone’s throw of Moroc­can sol­diers. In pic­tures posted on­line, its leader Brahim Ghali, in mil­i­tary fa­tigues and sport­ing a white mous­tache, is seen re­view­ing his troops with all-ter­rain ve­hi­cles parked in the dunes be­hind.

Ghali’s mis­sion was to su­per­vise the estab­lish­ment of a “sup­port base” in Guer­guerat, in the far south of the ter­ri­tory, ac­cord­ing to pro-Polis­ario web­sites. War broke out in 1975 when Morocco sent troops to the for­mer Span­ish colony and bat­tled Polis­ario Front fight­ers, who de­clared a Sahrawi Arab Demo­cratic Repub­lic the fol­low­ing year. A UN peace­keep­ing force, MINURSO (United Na­tions Mis­sion for the Ref­er­en­dum in Western Sa­hara), was es­tab­lished in 1991 when a cease­fire took ef­fect.

Morocco in­sists Western Sa­hara is an in­te­gral part of the king­dom, de­spite UN res­o­lu­tions that task MINURSO with or­ga­niz­ing a ref­er­en­dum on self-de­ter­mi­na­tion. Since midAu­gust, Guer­guerat has be­come a source of ten­sion be­tween Ra­bat and the Polis­ario. In a move it says is de­signed to counter traf­fick­ing, mostly in drugs and stolen cars, the Moroc­can army has started to build a tar­ma­cked road be­yond the 2,500-kilo­me­tre-long (1,600-mile) sand wall that sur­rounds the 90 per­cent of the ter­ri­tory which it con­trols.

Polis­ario el­e­ments have since en­tered the area, bring­ing them close to Moroc­can mil­i­tary po­si­tions, and the two sides have traded ac­cu­sa­tions of vi­o­lat­ing the terms of the 1991 cease­fire. The United Na­tions has de­ployed a num­ber of un­armed MINURSO blue hel­mets to the area and warned of the “re­gional im­pli­ca­tions” of any re­sump­tion of hos­til­i­ties. Ra­bat has given as­sur­ances of “re­straint” but stressed it re­mains de­ter­mined to com­plete con­struc­tion of the road from Guer­guerat to La Guera, a ghost town fur­ther south, just 15 kilo­me­ters (nine miles) across the bor­der from Mau­ri­ta­nia’s sec­ond city Nouad­hi­bou. At the end of Septem­ber, less than 3.5 kilo­me­ters re­mained to be built, but there has been no progress re­port since then.

For Morocco, an ad­vanced Polis­ario out­post amounts to “a se­ri­ous provo­ca­tion dif­fi­cult to leave unan­swered”, an an­a­lyst of the decades-old dis­pute said. Ra­bat has so far with­held any pub­lic com­ment, but the web­site Le360, which is close to palace cir­cles, has branded it a “provo­ca­tion”. It ac­cused MINURSO of fail­ing to act and crit­i­cized Mau­ri­ta­nia, which al­lows the Polis­ario to move freely on its ter­ri­tory. For Le360, “a plot hatched by Al­giers, to be ex­e­cuted by the Polis­ario with the com­plic­ity of Nouak­chott” aims to snatch con­trol of the Guer­guerat area. The Moroc­can army “con­tin­ues to show re­straint... but Polis­ario ac­tions would call for a firm and rig­or­ous re­sponse”, it said. Khadija Mohsen-Fi­nan, a spe­cial­ist on the re­gion and pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Paris I, said the move was “ges­tur­ing” by Ghali, who took over as Polis­ario leader on the death of his pre­de­ces­sor Mo­hamed Ab­de­laziz in May. “No­body ex­pects a mil­i­tary out­come to the con­flict any more,” she said. “The Polis­ario can’t en­gage in any con­fronta­tion with­out the agree­ment of Al­giers, which doesn’t want one.” — AFP

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