Trouble stirs in sands of Western Sahara
RABAT - 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 organising a referendum on self-determination.
Since mid-August, 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 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 kilometres (nine miles) across the border from Mauritania's second city Nouadhibou.
At the end of September, less than 3.5 kilometres (two miles) remained to be built, but there has been no progress report since then.
- 'Gesturing' -
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 criticised 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."
The rising tensions come as Morocco steps up efforts to rejoin the African Union (AU), 32 years after quitting the bloc over its decision to accept the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic as a member.
Since July, Morocco has lobbied hard to win the support of member states and its readmission could be put to a vote at the AU's next summit in Addis Ababa in January, barring any armed incident in the dunes of Guerguerat.