Cairo-Morocco has begun military operations in a UN patrolled buffer zone in Western Sahara, increasing tensions in the disputed territory and threatening the fragile truce in the region for nearly three decades.
The Moroccan authorities said on Friday that after weeks of provocations by members of the Polisario Front who supported the independence movement, their forces had been transferred to the buffer zone in the Guerguerat area.
Tensions in the area can be traced back to 1975, when Morocco annexed the desert, which was a former protectorate of Spain and was briefly occupied by Mauritania. For many years, Polisario has been fighting for independence from Morocco, which lasted until 1
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that since October 21, the Polisario Front has blocked goods and people on the main road connecting Morocco and Mauritania. The Ministry accused the group of “rights defense operations” and “harassment” of UN peacekeeping forces in the area.
The road is located at the junction of the disputed territory controlled by Morocco, traversing the buffer zone and leading to the border between Western Sahara and Mauritania. Polisario Front believes that this road is illegal because they say it violates the armistice agreement of 1991.
The Moroccan security forces announced that they had established a “security cordon” on Thursday night to ensure the movement of goods and people through the buffer zone. By Friday, the troops had fully protected the border crossing. The authorities did not specify how many troops were involved or whether they had further goals.
On Friday, Frente Polisario officials accused Moroccan security forces of shooting at civilians. They said civilians were “peaceful demonstrations.” They oppose their belief that Morocco is plundering resources and the United Nations remains silent on human rights violations. An official said that there are no immediate reports of deaths or injuries.
Polisario confirmed in a statement on Friday that they attacked Moroccan targets but did not report any casualties. They also stated that they were able to evacuate the protesters without any harm.
Brahim Ghali, secretary-general of the Polisario Front, said that Morocco’s actions were “aggression and flagrant violations of the ceasefire” that began in 1991.
Gary said in a letter to the UN Secretary-General António Guterres that by carrying out this operation, Morocco has destroyed “any opportunity for a peaceful solution to the decolonization of Western Sahara.”
A spokesperson for Mr. Guterres said that he has been taking “multiple measures” to alleviate the deterioration of the situation and will “do his best to avoid the collapse of the ceasefire.”
When an armistice was announced thirty years ago, the UN Security Council established a mission to monitor the truce and planned to hold a referendum so that the indigenous peoples (known as the Saharans) in the territory could decide between independence or integration with Morocco select.
The referendum has not yet materialized, and thousands of displaced Saharans continue to live in refugee camps near the town of Tindouf, Algeria.
The United Nations reported in late October that traffic in Guerguerat had been blocked, and urged all parties to “exercise restraint and take all necessary steps to resolve any tensions.” The Security Council also extended the mandate of peacekeeping operations until at least 2021. October.
Since former German President Horst Köhler resigned from the United Nations Special Envoy for Western Sahara for health reasons last year, negotiations between the two sides have stalled.
Morocco said on Friday that it has notified the United Nations and neighboring countries of its military plans. In a statement, the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs “has no choice but to assume responsibility to eliminate the deadlock.”
Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of South Africa and the current chairman of the African Union, asked officials in Morocco and Western Sahara on Thursday to reduce tensions and return to the negotiating table.