The Polisario Front, the organization that seeks independence for the disputed Western Sahara area, said this weekend it launched attacks on Moroccan forces after a 30-year ceasefire ended.
The rebel group, which is backed by neighboring Algeria, said on Saturday that "attacks by units of the Sahrawi People's Liberation Army against various hideouts of the Moroccan enemy along their positions in the occupied parts of Sahrawi territory are continuing, resulting in deaths and equipment and deaths Disruption of his military plans ”.
Western Sahara, a dry and sparsely populated strip of land, has been under Moroccan control since 1975 when Spain, the occupying power, withdrew its armed forces.
Since then, the Polisario Front has sought independence while the United Nations has tried to organize a referendum on self-determination. The resurgence of tensions in the long-frozen conflict could lead to instability in the region as Libya is still embroiled in a protracted war and Mali battles a jihadist insurgency.
The announcement came shortly after Polisario leader Brahim Ghali announced that his group had ended their ceasefire commitment. He accused Morocco of violating its rules by attacking civilians peacefully protesting in a remote buffer region near the Guerguerat border post in the extreme southwest of the disputed area near Mauritania.
Brahim Ghali, the leader of Polisario, stated that his group had ended their commitment to the ceasefire © REUTERS
United Nations secretary-general António Guterres said Friday that he had launched several initiatives to avoid escalating the Guerguerat buffer strip, but his efforts had failed. He warned "of violations of the ceasefire and the grave consequences of changes in the status quo".
Morocco has not confirmed any attacks on its armed forces and MAP, its official news agency, said Saturday night that the Guerguerat border post had reopened to traffic in both directions. The road connects the disputed area with Mauritania.
Around 180,000 Sahrawi refugees live in camps in south-western Algeria, where Polisario also established the government in exile of his self-proclaimed Arab-Democratic Republic of Saharawi.
The UN has a permanent mission in Western Sahara that oversaw the ceasefire between Morocco and Polisario and agreed in 1991 to end a 16-year war in which 9,000 people were killed and thousands of others fled to Algeria.
A self-determination referendum organized by the United Nations to regulate the status of Western Sahara as part of Morocco or as an independent territory has been repeatedly postponed because the two sides have not agreed on who is eligible to vote – a key issue for determining the outcome.
Polisario said recent tensions were sparked by peaceful civil protests in the Guerguerat Strip against the "illegal road" to Mauritania built by Morocco through the buffer zone. Reuters reports that Moroccan forces entered the area on Friday to open the road after Polisario supporters supported by armed fighters blocked it.
The news agency quoted an unnamed diplomat who said on Friday that heavy gunfire was audible near the buffer zone from the direction of the Moroccan military construction. Polisario has not reported any casualties.