Polisario says WSahara ceasefire over as Rabat launches operation
The pro-independence Polisario Front declared a three-decade-old ceasefire in the disputed Western Sahara was over on Friday after Morocco launched an operation to reopen the road to neighbouring Mauritania.
Rabat said its troops would "put a stop to the blockade" of trucks travelling between Moroccan-controlled areas of the Western Sahara and Mauritania, and "restore free circulation of civilian and commercial traffic."
The Polisario, which had warned on Monday that the 1991 ceasefire was hanging by a thread, said the move by the Moroccan military had brought it to an end.
"War has started, the Moroccan side has liquidated the ceasefire," senior Polisario official Mohamed Salem Ould Salek told AFP, describing the action by Rabat as an "aggression".
"Sahrawi troops are engaged in legitimate self-defence and are responding to the Moroccan troops," said Ould Salek, who serves as foreign minister of the Polisario-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
The Moroccan foreign ministry said it had been forced to act by the actions of Polisario fighters in no-man's land on the Mauritanian border.
"The Polisario and its militias, who have infiltrated the zone since October 21, have been carrying out acts of banditry, blocking traffic and continually harassing MINURSO military observers," a ministry statement said.
Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita insisted the action being taken was a measured response and had not affected any civilians.
"This is not an offensive action, it is a firm action compared to the action (by the other side) which is unacceptable," Bourita told AFP.
A senior ministry official contacted by AFP said that for some three weeks, around 70 armed men had been "attacking truck drivers, blocking their passage and engaging in extortion."
Currently, 108 truck drivers with vehicles from different countries including France, Morocco and Mauritania, are stranded on the Mauritanian side of the border and 78 on the other side, the official said.
In a joint statement issued on November 5, the stranded truck drivers appealed to both Rabat and Nouakchott for help returning home after Polisario fighters blocked their passage.
Western Sahara, a vast swathe of desert on Africa's Atlantic coast, is a disputed former Spanish colony.
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Rabat controls 80 percent of the territory, including its phosphate deposits and its lucrative ocean fisheries.
The Polisario's forces are largely confined to the sparsely populated desert interior and refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria, the independence group's main foreign backer.
Peacekeeping force MINURSO has patrolled a buffer zone between the two sides since a UN-brokered ceasefire took effect in 1991.
The village of Guergerat in the far south of the Western Sahara is the last village under Moroccan control.
Beyond it is a strip of desert where Polisario fighters have maintained a periodic presence in recent years.
An informal trade has grown up exporting Moroccan fresh produce to the Mauritanian coastal city of Nouadhibou, but to the growing anger of Rabat it has periodically fallen foul of the Polisario.
In its statement on Monday the group, which has campaigned for independence since the last days of Spanish rule in the 1970s, warned it would "respond vigorously in self-defence and to defend its national sovereignty" in the event of any Moroccan incursion.
"This will also mean the end of the ceasefire and the beginning of a new war across the region," the statement added.
Morocco, which maintains that Western Sahara is an integral part of the kingdom, has offered autonomy for the territory but insists it will retain sovereignty.
The Polisario demands a referendum on self-determination as set out in the 1991 ceasefire.
The planned referendum has been repeatedly postponed due to disputes between Rabat and the Polisario over voter rolls and the question to be put.
Negotiations on the territory's future involving Morocco, the Polisario, Algeria and Mauritania have been suspended for several months.