YAOUNDE, Cameroon — A Moroccan military officer says the nation’s army has regained control of the Guergarate buffer zone that connects Morocco with Mauritania, driving away dozens of a rebel group’s militiamen and restoring the flow of people and goods between the two countries.
The Polisario Front, a rebel movement that claims independent control over the adjoining Moroccan region known as Western Sahara, has sought for decades to end Morocco’s presence there. Its forces blocked the border-crossing area on October 21, positioning armed men at strategic positions and in effect closing the border. Reports quickly reached Rabat of a column of more than 200 Moroccan trucks trapped on the Mauritanian side
Colonel Ahmed Omar told Zenger News that the nearly 16-hour operation stretching from Thursday to Friday ended “without casualties” and that Moroccan Royal Armed Forces engaged only armed combatants, but warned that the Polisario would likely claim otherwise. “Yes, they will levy all claims against us, but I want to assure you that this operation—which has to continue—will be void of the mis-targeting of civilians,” Col. Omar said.
A statement from Morocco’s armed forces said Polisario militants set fire to a tent camp they had erected and fled in Jeeps and trucks, as UN observers watched.
The Polisario said Friday in a statement that its forces did not report any deaths or injuries. They said they were able to evacuate “peaceful protesters” without any harm, claiming Moroccan soldiers had fired on them.
Polisario Front Secretary General Brahim Ghali said Morocco’s military operation constituted an “act of aggression and a flagrant violation of the cease-fire” brokered in 1991.
Tensions in the region date to 1975 when Morocco annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish desert protectorate that was also briefly occupied by Mauritania.
The Algeria- and Libya-backed Polisario fought an armed guerrilla war for independence from both Morocco and Mauritania, forcing Mauritania’s complete withdrawal in 1979. Morocco’s King Hassan II responded by building a 1,600-mile-long sand barrier and liberally peppering it with an estimated 7 million land mines, blocking the Polisario from occupying the Atlantic coast and other economically useful areas of the territory.
Moroccan Foreign Affairs Ministry attaché Mehdi Ahmed told Zenger that the king’s forces “have taken this action at this time out of patience and consideration. … We cannot accept that we have not done business with our neighbors Mauritania for the past couple of weeks.”
Ahmed blamed the Polisario’s “unacceptable and persistent provocations” for forcing Morocco to respond with force to address “issues of legitimate defense.”
A statement earlier in the day from the Moroccan foreign ministry said Polisario fighters had “carried out acts of banditry, blocked the movement of people and goods on this road, and continually harassed the [United Nations] military observers.” The ministry also said Morocco had notified other governments in the region about its plan to disrupt the Guergarate blockade.
Statements from the government of King Mohammed VI reflexively refer to the group as “polisario”—in quotation marks and all lower-case letters.
The Polisario is affiliated with the Socialist International, but has won the support of few other socialist organizations and political parties in North Africa—including Morocco’s Party of Progress and Socialism.
The party’s secretary general, Nabil Benabdallah, said Friday that Morocco had acted “in defense of international legitimacy and territorial integrity, after a long period of restraint.” Benabdallah also runs Morocco’s housing and urbanism ministry.
Guergarate is a frontier town near Morocco’s southern border with Mauritania, placing it on the edge of Western Sahara in the middle of a no man’s land. The seven-mile stretch that separates it from Mauritania has strategic value because of the flow of commerce that passes through it daily.
(Edited by Daniel Kucin Jr. and David Matthew)
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