RABAT, Morocco (AP) — The Moroccan military launched an operation in a U.N.-patrolled border zone in the disputed Western Sahara to clear a key road it said had been blockaded for weeks by supporters of the pro-independence Polisario Front.
A Polisario envoy accused the Moroccan military of firing at innocent protesters and said that led to clashes Friday between Moroccan and Polisario forces. The envoy urged the United Nations to intervene. There was no immediate reaction from the U.N., which has peacekeeping forces in the area enforcing a 29-year-old cease-fire.
Moroccan forces set up a security cordon overnight in the zone in the Guerguerat buffer zone on Western Sahara’s southern border with Mauritania “in order to secure the flow of goods and people through this axis,” the General Staff of the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces said in a statement Friday.
It said they intervened because about 60 people supervised by Polisario were blocking a road connecting Morocco with Mauritania, and called it a “non-offensive operation” that would involve use of arms “only in the case of self-defense.” The Moroccan Foreign Ministry said the road has been blocked for more than three weeks.
The Polisario’s ambassador to Algeria, Abdelkader Omar, said Moroccan forces “opened fire on innocent civilian protesters” and Polisario fighters came to the protesters’ defense, prompting “intense clashes” Friday.
Speaking on Algerian television network El Bilad, Omar said, “It’s the U.N.’s duty to intervene urgently to stop this aggression against the Sahrawi people.”
Polisario chief Ibrahim Ghali sent an urgent letter to the U.N. secretary general and U.N. Security Council about the intervention, according to Algerian state news agency APS.
Morocco annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony believed to have considerable offshore oil deposits, in 1975. The Polisario Front fought for independence and the U.N. brokered a cease-fire in 1991, and established a peacekeeping mission to monitor the truce and help prepare a referendum on the territory’s future that has never taken place.
Friday’s action came after the Polisario Front reportedly suggested earlier this week it would reconsider its engagement in the U.N.-led political process, threatening to withdraw from the cease-fire if any Moroccan civilian or military personnel enters the buffer zone.
Last month, the U.N. Security Council extended the mandate of the peacekeeping mission, known as MINURSO, for another year. The Algeria-backed Polisario Front criticized the resolution, calling it “unacceptable.”