Western Sahara, Left in Limbo, Erupts into Conflict as Sahrawi Await Elusive Self-Determination Vote

By William J. Furney

LAS PALMAS — The head of a ragtag rebel group in Western Sahara is incandescent with rage. The Mococcan military has launched what he says is a “brutal attack” on Sahrawi people in Western Sahara who were holding a peaceful and unarmed demonstration against the Moroccan presence in the disputed territory and therefore broke a three-decade ceasefire in the turbulent region. 

“The Moroccan military operation against Sahrawi civilians is an act of aggression and a flagrant violation of the ceasefire. We hold the Moroccan occupying state fully responsible for the consequences of its military operation,” Brahim Ghali said in a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Friday. 

Brahim, president of the semi-recognised Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, known as SADR, and leader of the insurgent Polisario Front, which wants Morocco out of what they deem their country, said his rebels battled the Moroccans in an act of “self-defence and to protect civilians”. 

The insurgents launched heavy artillery fire at Moroccan troops to repel them and the Moroccan military “surprisingly withdrew”, but not before the rebels managed to capture a number of Moroccan soldiers, ECSAHARAUI, a Spanish-language news service reporting on events in Western Sahara said, citing “exclusive information”. 

There were no reports of deaths or injuries. 

Morocco did not confirm the apprehension of its troops by Polisario operatives but said it had “no other choice” but to go ahead with its incursion into a buffer zone in order to “restore free civil and commercial movement”, according to a statement from the Foreign Ministry in Rabat. 

It said the rebels had been entering the crossing area since October 21 and had “carried out acts of banditry there, blocked the movement of people and goods on this road, and continually harassed the military observers of MINURSO,” referring to the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, which amid guerilla warfare has been attempting to keep the peace in the region since its formation in 1991, when a ceasefire came into effect.

Western Sahara has been ruled by Spain, whose overseas territories include the nearby Canary Islands, and neighbouring Mauritania. Morocco moved in and annexed the territory in 1975, and the dispute between Rabat and Polisario has been festering ever since. 

The United Nations wants a referendum on self-determination that would ask the Sahrawi if they wish to establish their own country or accept Moroccan rule, but so far there are no signs that such a ballot will be held, frustrating efforts to bring about a lasting resolution to one of the world’s longest-running disputes.

Around 600,000 people live in Western Sahara, whose scant resources include mineral mining and fishing. The hot desert climate means much of the territory is unsuitable for farming or other activity. There is limited tourism and the coastal capital, Laayoune, only has a handful of hotels, most without internet connections.  

Renewed tensions erupted when Moroccan forces entered into what’s called a buffer zone alongside the village of Guerguerat in Western Sahara, a move that promoted Russia to urge both sides to “show maximum restraint, to refrain from taking steps that can exacerbate the situation and to strictly comply with the ceasefire agreement”, a statement from the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said.

Polisario now considers the 29-year-old ceasefire is over, its leader, Ghali, was quoted by the rebels’ news agency as saying on Saturday. Later in the day, the agency, Sahara Press Service, claimed to have carried out attacks on “several military bases, support points and supply centers” of Morocco, with rocket fire and machine-gun attacks. 

Morocco said it had appealed to the UN over Polisario incursions into the buffer zone but was not successful and “therefore decided to act”, saying the insurgents would bear “full responsibility and the full consequences of these acts”. 

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