Whether it was in “an exchange of gunfire,” as described by Morocco, or “a state of war,” as the Polisario Front claims, the fact is that the 29-year-old ceasefire between the two sides over the disputed region seems to have ended.
On Friday, Moroccan forces launched an operation at the Guergarat border crossing south of the Western Sahara, a long-disputed area between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the Western Sahara’s independence movement.
The foreign minister of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, declared by the Polisario Front in the mid-1970s, Mohamed Salem Ould Salek, announced that “war has begun, and the western side has breached the ceasefire agreement” as a result of the Moroccan operation.
“The end of the war depends on ending the illegitimate occupation,” he said, a reference to Moroccan forces in the disputed region.
Some African countries recognised the Algeria-backed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic after its declaration, causing Morocco to withdraw from the former Organisation of African Unity, now the African Union. However, the kingdom later reactivated its membership in this organisation that it had helped to found in 1963.
Brahim Ghali, president of the Sahrawi Republic, issued a decree renouncing his commitment to the UN Resolution imposing a ceasefire to the conflict in 1991.
Moroccan Prime Minister Saadeddin Al-Othmani said Morocco had launched the operation to secure the flow of goods and people through Guergarat and to connect Morocco better with Mauritania.
Rabat said the Guergarat operation was launched after the Polisario Front had blocked movement through the crossing for three weeks.
Morocco controls 80 per cent of the Western Sahara, including all the coastal area but excluding Guergarat and the phosphate-mining regions. The Polisario Front controls the area bordering Algeria and the southern area connecting Morocco and Mauritania.
Thousands of Sahrawis live in Morocco’s Tandouf province in the southwest of the country.
The areas held by each party are separated by a 2,700 km wall surrounded by a buffer zone of five km on each side. This “wall of defence,” in the words of Polisario, has seen several battles breaking out in recent years.
Morocco issued a statement on Friday night reporting that the kingdom’s forces had been shot at upon entering Guergarat, but that “there were no casualties.” The statement added that the crossing was now “completely secure.”
On Saturday, movement was restored at Guergarat for the transport of goods to Mauritania and African countries in the west of the Sahara, the French news agency AFP reported.
Access to the area is difficult due to its size and geographical location. It is also difficult to reach from the border area on the Algerian side as a result of the cancellation of domestic flights owing to the spread of the Covid-19.
Rabat had not allowed journalists to move freely in the area even before the present conflict.
UN Spokesman Stephane Dujarric in New York said the international body’s MINURSO mission in the Western Sahara had confirmed the exchange of fire between the two sides on Sunday and Monday.
It had “received reports by both sides of incidents of shooting at various locations,” he said. The UN has called on both sides to “exercise restraint” and to take measures to defuse the tensions, Dujarric added.
The Polisario Front is demanding a UN-supervised referendum on the right to self-determination in the region, while Morocco has repeatedly said that it would agree to the area’s self-rule under Moroccan sovereignty.
Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said in late October that the UN’s latest decision in the conflict “doesn’t include holding a referendum, but has pointed to resorting to a ‘political solution’ six times.”
UN Security Council Resolution 2468, issued before the latest tensions in the region, calls on the conflicting parties to resume negotiations suspended since 2019. The resolution calls “upon the parties to resume their talks in good faith and without preconditions in order to achieve a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution providing for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara in line with the United Nations Charter.”
The Western Sahara gained independence from Spanish occupation in 1976. Morocco filed a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice in the Hague in 1974 asserting its sovereignty over the Western Sahara.
The court did not approve Rabat’s demand, however, saying that the tribes in the region should be given self-rule.
Rabat then rejected the court ruling, and upon the exit of the Spanish colonisers, former Moroccan king Hassan II launched his “green march” in which thousands of Moroccans marched on the Western Sahara waving flags to affirm the kingdom’s sovereignty over the region.
The Polisario Front, founded in Algeria in 1975, did not recognise the presence of Morocco in the region, deeming it an “illegitimate occupation.” This led to armed conflict, only halted by a UN resolution which the two sides agreed to in 1991.
The UN is now calling for the resumption of negotiations, in which Algeria and Mauritania are also taking part. Talks were restarted in 2018 and suspended in 2019.
The Western Sahara is the only African region whose fate was not determined after independence, raising fears of further armed conflict, according to statements by the UN, the European Union and the African Union.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly