SIM REPORT: North Africa, Issue 4
WESTERN SAHARA & MOROCCO: ELEVATED SECURITY RISK AFTER POLISARIO FRONT ENDS CEASEFIRE; FURTHER CONFLICT LIKELY AMID STALLED NEGOTIATIONS
In recent weeks, tensions across the disputed Western Sahara region have sharply increased after the Moroccan government announced that they had deployed armed forces into Guerguerat, a buffer zone on the southwest coast of the territory. Guerguerat is considered a ‘liberated territory’ under the control of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) but has been patrolled by the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) since 2016. The Moroccan army said that the decision to send troops into the area was due to ‘provocations’ of the Polisario Front (PF) - a Sahrawi rebel national liberation movement aiming to end Moroccan presence.
In a further statement, the ministry of foreign affairs said that since 21 October, dozens of Saharawi independence protesters in Guerguerat, with likely support from the PF, had blockaded trucks from passing along a key trading route that connects Morocco and Mauritania. Local media outlets reported that around 200 Moroccan truck drivers were left stranded on the Mauritanian side of the border as a consequence of the blockade.
The move to obstruct the road was likely fuelled by a recent vote by the UN Security Council to renew the mandate of MINURSO, which was rejected by PF in a statement on 30 September. It detailed that this was because the mandate did not include any concrete actions to advance the possibility of a referendum on the independence of the Saharawi people. The Polisario have been working to
achieve self-determination since the mid 1970s after Morocco and Mauritania annexed Western Sahara following the withdrawal of occupying Spanish forces in line with the Madrid Accords.
The PF reacted to news of a deployment of Moroccan forces by issuing a public warning that indicated this activity would be considered a ‘flagrant aggression’ and responded to harshly. In line with this statement and signaling a further significant escalation of tensions, on Saturday (14 November) PF leader Brahim Ghali said that the group would no longer commit to a 29-year old ceasefire and that attacks would be launched against Moroccan forces, marking the recommencing of open conflict. This came as Rabat’s official news agency, MAP, reported on Saturday that security forces had taken back control of Guerguerat and reopened the trading route to Mauritania in both directions.
Following Ghali’s statement, the Sahara Press Service, which falls under the control of the SADR, reported on 19 November that the PF had conducted five consecutive days of targeted attacks against the Moroccan Army’s positions. These attacks allegedly took place along the 2,700km defensive sand wall erected by Rabat in 1980 along the frontier between the hostile regions, which had ‘disrupted military plans and caused loss of life and equipment’. Despite King Mohammed VI’s warning in an official statement released on Monday (16 November) that the country is ‘firmly determined to react, with the greatest severity, and in self-defence, against any threat to its security’, the attacks remain unconfirmed by the Moroccan government with no explicit indication that full military action will be deployed against PF forces. Instead, on Tuesday (17 November) Morocco’s Prime Minister Saad Eddine El Otmani said that the country would continue to adhere to the ceasefire, confirming that only ‘skirmishes and sporadic fighting’ had occurred between the two sides.
While efforts to avoid full-scale conflict are likely being sought by Morocco, local reports indicate that a significantly ramped up security presence is in place across the disputed region, most heavily in Laâyoune, signalling that the country is likely seeking to exert pressure on the PF in other coercive ways. Clashes between pro-Polisario protesters and Moroccan forces have been reported in recent days across the city and will likely continue to occur in the weeks ahead with increasingly repressive tactics used by Moroccan police forces including arbitrary detentions. The PF has stipulated that it will not return to a ceasefire truce until commitments have been made by Rabat toward a self-determination referendum. In answer to this, Morocco has reasserted its longstanding position on the issue, which is a willingness to grant SADR autonomy for the disputed region, meaning Rabat will retain overall sovereignty.
The stalemate and current unwillingness for discussion on either side significantly raises the risk of open conflict and the potential for it to spread across the region over the short-medium term outlook. This would likely also result in a greater involvement from external players, notably Algeria, which has actively supported the PF since 1975. On Tuesday (24 November) local media from Algiers reported that the nationalist party Front de libération nationale (FLN) had announced ‘thousands of FLN militants’ were at the disposal of the PF in their efforts against the Moroccan army.
The developments elevate the security risk across Morocco and Western Sahara. It is possible that rouge actors working in support of the PF could carry out attacks against Moroccan interests over the coming months. Staff in the region should remain vigilant and exercise caution, particularly when travelling in heavily populated public spaces or locations likely to be targeted, including heritage and diplomatic sites alongside strategic facilities. Businesses with interests in Western Sahara should continue to monitor developments and prepare contingency plans; supply chains will likely be affected due to the potential for further roadblocks to be erected by PF or conflict erupting along these key trading routes in the months ahead.
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