The Moroccan army and the Polisario Front exchanged fire on Friday in southern Western Sahara, in what is known as the Guerguerat demilitarized zone, next to the border with Mauritania. This is the first direct confrontation since the signing of the ceasefire sealed in 1991. Both parties maintain, through separate statements, that they have acted in legitimate defense. And none of them claim to have registered injuries. The action took place at dawn from Thursday to Friday, when Moroccan forces entered the Guerguerat area to expel some 50 Sahrawi civilians who had been blocking the road through Western Sahara to Mauritania since October 21.
Although sources from the Moroccan Foreign Ministry have indicated to this newspaper that its troops had only fired twice into the air as a warning, the Moroccan General Staff issued a statement late in the afternoon of this Friday in which it stated that "the Armed Polisario militia ”fired at“ the Royal Armed Forces, which were forced to respond and forced the militiamen to flee ”. The operation was developed, according to the Moroccan General Staff, with the premise of "avoiding all contact with civilians."
The Moroccan Army communiqué states that the Polisario "militiamen" voluntarily set fire to the tents they had erected and "fled to the east and south aboard Jeeps and trucks, under the eyes of the observers of the MINURSO (United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara).
The Polisario Front points out in another statement that the Moroccan forces began the attack and their response was immediate. "(They responded) to the enemy fire to protect the Sahrawi citizens and safeguard the liberated Saharawi soil." The civilians were evacuated from the Guerguerat area by the Polisario Front itself and no casualties or injuries have been registered. But the organization warns that "the great war of liberation of all the people" has begun. An official Polisario source indicates that they themselves evicted the civilians "to avoid greater evils.
For its part, the Algerian Foreign Ministry, whose government is the main ally and protector of the Polisario Front, has deplored through a statement "the serious violations" of the ceasefire and called for the "immediate cessation" of military operations from Morocco.
From Morocco, the digital site Le360, which enjoys great access to the main power centers of the State, reported this Friday afternoon that the Moroccan army had built a “solid and impassable” wall of 14 kilometers between the Mauritanian border and the area of Guerguerat.
The Polisario Front began on October 21 to block the only commercial access route between Morocco and Mauritania. He was thus protesting against the fact that the Minurso, which has been on the ground since 1991, has not yet organized a referendum. The Saharawi organization wanted to draw attention to the international community days before the UN Security Council met on October 30 to decide whether to renew the mandate of the Minurso.
The Polisario considers that this road, where dozens of Moroccan trucks loaded with vegetables circulate every day in the direction of Mauritania and fish in the direction of Europe through the Sahara, is an "illegal gap", in a terrain that according to the high The fire signed in 1991 should only be intended, according to the Polisario, to preserve the ceasefire.
Finally, the Security Council renewed the mandate of the MINURSO on October 30, but in the text of its resolution it did not even mention the word referendum. With this, the Rabat authorities were very satisfied, as has been the case in recent years. For its part, the Polisario Front issued a harsh statement in which it warned that "the inaction" of the Security Council only left it the option of "intensifying" its struggle. "We hold the occupying State fully responsible for the serious consequences that its dangerous actions may have for peace and security throughout the region," he said.
This Friday, the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs has released a statement indicating that Rabat has had no alternative but to "assume its responsibilities" to restore free civil and commercial movement. The letter accuses the Saharawi organization of having committed acts of "banditry" and of having "continually harassed the MINURSO observers."
The message from the Foreign Ministry indicates that Rabat had regularly informed the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, about these "very serious" events and that it granted him all the time necessary for them to get the Polisario to leave the Guerguerat area. In view of the fact that these calls were unsuccessful, the Foreign Ministry alleges, Morocco decided to act "in perfect accordance with international law." The message ends with language similar to that used by the Polisario in its statement, holding the other party responsible for the consequences. "The Polisario assumes, alone, the entire responsibility and the full consequences," says the message.
The Polisario Front also blocked the Guerguerat road in February 2017, after Morocco started paving works the previous summer. At that time, it was not civilians but Polisario soldiers who undertook the control. Then Morocco also sent its army. And the two parties found themselves only 120 meters apart. There was a great risk that the ceasefire established since 1991 would be broken. On that occasion, Guterres' mediation managed to get Morocco to withdraw. And two months later, on April 29, 2017, the Polisario cleared the ground.
The consequences of this latest clash between Morocco and the Polisario Front remain to be seen. The Sahrawi organization issued a statement on Monday in which it warned: “The irruption of any Moroccan element, whether military, security or civilian, in this liberated area of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, known as the 'separation zone' will be considered a flagrant aggression to which the Saharawi party will respond firmly, in legitimate defense of its national sovereignty. It will also mean the end of the ceasefire and will open the door to the outbreak of a new total war in the region ”.
The General Secretary of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, sent a written message to Guterres on Friday stating that the Sahrawi forces "have been forced to confront the Moroccan forces in legitimate defense and protection of the civilian population." Gali reminds Guterres that this Friday a meeting was scheduled between the UN secretary and Sahrawi representatives. And he adds that the fact that "the military action" took place on the eve of those contacts "clearly demonstrates that the operation is a premeditated act of aggression by the occupying state to abort UN efforts."