confused situation, reported exchanges of fire

The situation in Western Sahara remains confused on Monday as the official Moroccan agency MAP and the Polisario reported shooting along the wall dividing the disputed territory, after the announcement on Friday of a break in the 1991 ceasefire by the Sahrawi separatists.

The Polisario has declared a “state of war” in reaction to an operation by the Moroccan army in a buffer zone in the extreme south of Western Sahara to restore road traffic on the only road leading to Mauritania, at the level from the Guerguerat border post.

Since then, it is impossible to know from an independent source what is really happening on the ground, because of the difficulties of access in this immense desert territory which Morocco and the Polisario have been fighting for decades, supported by Algeria.

For the independence movement, the Moroccan intervention in Guerguerat sounded the death knell for the ceasefire signed in 1991 under the aegis of the UN, after 15 years of fighting. Moroccans say they are attached to its respect.

The situation of the only territory of the African continent whose post-colonial status has not been settled is of particular concern to the UN, the EU and the African Union (AU).

Since Friday, the Polisario has multiplied the press releases announcing “massive attacks” and bombardments along the 2,700 kilometer sand wall that separates the two camps, without eliciting an official reaction in Rabat.

On the Moroccan side, the last press release from the general staff dates back to Friday evening, to announce that “the passage of Guerguerat is completely secure”.

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Traffic on the road leading to Mauritania resumed late Saturday afternoon and truckers stranded for three weeks were able to cross the border, according to corroborating reports.

Unusually, the official MAP agency resumed Sunday evening information from an unofficial site dedicated to the Royal Armed Forces (FAR) to announce exchanges of fire along the defense wall, without giving a precise location.

“Since November 13, 2020, the Polisario militiamen have carried out harassing shots along the defense line without causing damage to either human or material”, according to this “FAR-Morocco” military forum cited by the MAP.

The Moroccan army “retaliated”, causing “the destruction of a weapon-carrying device east of the defense line”, at the level of the town of Mahbès, near the Algerian border, according to this forum.

– “Reality of information” –

For its part, the Polisario spoke on Sunday of “fighting continuing crescendo” along the Moroccan defense wall. He also assured to mobilize “thousands of volunteers”.

The desert region is geographically isolated. On the Moroccan side, Rabat does not let journalists move freely, even in normal times. It is also complicated to reach the Algerian border area, in particular because of the suspension of domestic flights linked to the coronavirus pandemic.

The UN force (Minurso) is also encountering difficulties of access on the ground and has limited its movements in recent months, now mainly basing its observations on satellite images, according to the last annual report of the Secretary General before the UN Security Council.

It is “extremely difficult to verify the reality of the information disseminated from one side or the other,” the report also stressed.

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The report was also concerned about the “risk of attack” and “the proliferation of drug traffickers and other criminal elements in the territory” which “poses a growing and unpredictable threat” to its staff, now reduced to 195 members due to budget restrictions.

Morocco controls three quarters of the territory of 266,000 km2 and considers the western strip, rich in phosphate and fish-bearing waters, as an integral part of the kingdom.

Rabat proposes autonomy under its sovereignty while the Polisario demands a self-determination referendum provided for by the 1991 agreement but never implemented.

Negotiations involving Morocco, the Polisario, Algeria and Mauritania have stalled since March 2019.

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