2020 Western Saharan clashes

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2020 Western Saharan clashes
Part of the Western Sahara conflict
2020 Western Saharan clashes.png
Map of the Western Sahara; location of Guerguerat, where the main clashes take place, is marked with a red circle.
Date13 November 2020 (2020-11-13) – present
(1 year, 3 weeks and 3 days)
Location
Result Ongoing
Territorial
changes
Morocco secured the Guerguerat border crossing.[1]
Belligerents
Kingdom of Morocco

Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR)

Commanders and leaders
Mohammed VI
Saadeddine Othmani
Abdellatif Loudiyi
Abdelfattah Louarak
Brahim Ghali
Mohamed Wali Akeik
Units involved
Royal Moroccan Armed Forces Saharawi People's Liberation Army (SPLA)

The 2020 Western Saharan clashes, also called the Guerguerat crisis and Moroccan military intervention in Guerguerat is an armed conflict between Morocco and the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), represented at the United Nations by the Polisario Front, in the disputed region of Western Sahara. It was the latest escalation of an unresolved conflict over the region, which is largely occupied by Morocco, but 20–25% of which it is administered by the SADR.[2] The violence ended a ceasefire between the opposing sides that had held for 29 years in anticipation of referendum on self-determination that would have settled the dispute. Despite the establishment of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara in 1991, the referendum was never held.

Tensions between Morocco and the Polisario Front deepened in mid-October 2020 when Saharawi peaceful protesters blocked a controversial road connecting Morocco to sub-Saharan Africa (the Moroccan border with Algeria is closed). The protesters camped on the road near the small village of Guerguerat, where it passes through a 5-kilometer-wide buffer strip monitored by the UN. Despite the controversy, the route had grown in economic importance,[3] such that the protest stranded about 200 Moroccan truck drivers on the Mauritanian side of the border.[4] According to the Sahrawi authorities, the Moroccan forces were deployed near the area in early November,[5] with Mauritanian forces reinforcing their positions along its border with Morocco, which is controlled by the Polisario Front.[6]

On 13 November, Morocco launched a military operation from the Berm into the demilitarized buffer strip of Western Sahara to clear the protesters near Guerguerat and restore the free movement of goods and people. The Polisario Front urged the United Nations to intervene, noting that the Moroccan military operation violated the ceasefire agreements of the 1990's, and furthermore accused the Moroccan security forces of shooting at unarmed civilians in the buffer strip.[7][8] Morocco denied there had been any armed clashes between the sides and said the truce remained in place,[9] while SADR authorities declared the ceasefire over. Clashes spread that same day along the Moroccan Berm, with Morocco claiming that it had repelled a Sahrawi incursion near Al Mahbes.[10] The SADR declared war on Morocco the next day.[11] Since the beginning of the conflict, both countries have begun mass mobilisation and the SADR Ministry of Defense claims to be bombarding military objectives along the Moroccan Berm daily.[12][13][14] It is the first major clash over the region since 1991.[15]

Background[edit source | edit]

For further information, see Western Sahara conflict

The disputed region Western Sahara is a sparsely-populated area mostly comprising desert territories, situated in the Maghreb region of Africa's northwest coast. The region was a Spanish colony until February 1976, when the Spanish government informed the United Nations that it withdrew from the territory. Since then, the region has been the subject of a long-running territorial dispute between Morocco, supported by a number of its prominent Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan,[16] and the Saharawi Republic (SADR), an African Union member state established by the Algerian-backed pro-independence Polisario Front, which is recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate representative of the indigenous Sahrawi people.[17] Some commentators have connected Morocco's interests over the region with the idea of Greater Morocco, which encompasses Western Sahara and parts of both Mauritania, Mali, and Algeria, and according to the narrative, was divided up by the French and Spanish colonizers.[16] Morocco, claiming Tindouf and Béchar provinces, invaded Algeria in 1963, resulting in the brief Sand War, which ended in a military stalemate.[18]

The official United Nations map of the MINURSO peacekeeping mission shows that the border crossing at Guerguerat is not among the recognized locations to cross the Moroccan Berm.

While the Polisario Front had waged a low-intensity war of national liberation against Spanish colonial authorities since May 1973, the Western Sahara War began in October 1975, just weeks before the death of long-time Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, when Moroccan and Mauritanian forces,[19][20] aided by France,[21][22] invaded the Spanish colony. While Mauritania withdrew from Western Sahara and recognized the Saharawi Republic early in the conflict, by the end of the war Morocco had obtained control of more than two-thirds of the vast desert territory in its western part, along the Atlantic Ocean.[23] During the war, between 1980 and 1987, Morocco built six mostly sand barriers some 2,700 kilometres (1,700 mi) long,[24] and in 1988, both Morocco and the Polisario Front agreed to a UN Settlement Plan, approved by the UN Security Council on 29 April 1991, called for a referendum, which would ask the Sahrawis to choose between independence or integration into Morocco, to be organized and conducted by the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).[25] After the war, on 6 September 1991, an UN-brokered ceasefire was signed,[26] promising a referendum on self-determination to the Sahrawis.[27] The United Nations has recognising the area as a non-self-governing territory since 1963; it is also the only African territory on the list, making the Western Sahara the last African territory subject to decolonization.[27][28] Despite the efforts, the planned referendum has been repeatedly delayed ever since then;[29] Morocco had refused the terms of the referendum, citing its dissatisfaction with who was allowed to vote,[30] while tens of thousands of Moroccans have emigrated to the region since the 1970s.[16]

Guerguerat border crossing in 2007.

Guerguerat is a small village located on the southern coast of the region, along the road leading to Mauritania, some 380 kilometres (240 mi) north of Nouakchott, in a buffer zone patrolled by MINURSO;[31] UN's envoy to the region, Horst Köhler, resigned in mid-2019 for health-related reasons.[32] The Polisario Front considers the road illegal since they say it was built in violation of the ceasefire.[33] Tensions yet again deepened between Morocco and the Polisario Front in mid-October, when unarmed Sahrawi refugees from Tindouf, Algeria (where Polisario-administered refugee camps house about 100,000 Sahrawi refugees[34]) passed through SADR-controlled territories to camp on and block the road in protest of what they called the plunder of Western Saharan resources from the Sahrawi people,[35] creating a large caravan of vehicles and blocking traffic in the region.[36] Morocco, which regards the region as vital to trade with sub-Saharan Africa,[3] accused the Polisario Front of infiltrating the buffer zone and "carrying out acts of banditry" in Guerguerat.[37] The Moroccan authorities also stated that the Polisario Front was harassing UN troops at the crossing, though the UN denied this.[27] In early November, around 200 Moroccan truck drivers appealed to Moroccan and Mauritanian authorities for help, saying they were stranded on the Mauritanian side of the border near Guerguerat, and adding that they didn't have access to drinking water, food, shelter, or medicine, with some suffering from chronic illnesses.[4] According to Jeune Afrique, Morocco first appealed to the United Nations to resolve the conflict peacefully, and that although the secretary-general of the United Nations, António Guterres, approved this request, the situation was not resolved.[38] Guterres himself likewise said that he had launched numerous initiatives to evade an escalation in the buffer zone, but his efforts had failed.[39] On 8 November, Polisario Front authorities stated that Morocco was deploying a large number of police and other security forces near Guerguerat.[5] On 12 November, Mauritanian forces reinforced their positions along border Polisario Front-controlled territories bordering Mauritania.[6]

Course of the conflict[edit source | edit]

13 November

The clashes erupted on 13 November, when the Moroccan forces launched an offensive on Guerguerat to seize control of the road passing by the village,[40] which was blocked by around 50 Sahrawi activists.[41] According to Sahrawi sources, the Moroccan forces violated the ceasefire by penetrating the demilitarized zone,[42] crossing the Moroccan Western Sahara Wall in three different directions.[43] The Moroccan authorities stated that they had acted in self-defence, after a Sahrawi attack on Al Mahbes,[44] and launched an offensive to restore free circulation of civilian and commercial traffic in the area.[45] Later in the day, the Polisario Front stated that its forces fired upon four Moroccan bases and two checkpoints along the security wall.[46] Then, the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces claimed full control over the Guerguerat border crossing.[1]

14 November

On 14 November, the SADR declared war on Morocco.[11] the Polisario Front then stated that its forces had launched attacks on Moroccan military positions near Bagari, Al Mahbes, and Guerguerat. Morocco denied that it suffered casualties.[47]

15 November

On 15 November, more skirmishing was reported between SADR and Moroccan forces along the security wall,[13] especially near Al Mahbes where Moroccan forces claimed to have destroyed an SPLA armoured vehicle.[48][49]

16 November

On 16 November, MINURSO reported continued skirmishing along the security wall.[50]

18 November

On 18 November, MINURSO reported harassing fire at points along the security wall.[51]

Non-military actions taken by Morocco and SADR[edit source | edit]

On 13 November, both Morocco and SADR introduced mass mobilisation.[12][13] The SADR evicted civilians from Guerguerat[41] and introduced a curfew in the territories under its control.[47]

Official statements[edit source | edit]

Morocco

On 13 November, the Authenticity and Modernity Party, the Party of Progress and Socialism, the Popular Movement Party, and the Independence Party voiced their support for the Moroccan military intervention.[52] The next day, the House of Representatives of Morocco issued a statement, stressing that the military intervention was legitimate.[53] On 16 November, King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, stated that Morocco will take necessary measures to "keep order and protect safety and fluidity of passenger and commercial traffic in the border area between Morocco and Mauritania", adding that the UN for failed in its "laudable attempts to end the unacceptable acts of the Polisario".[54] Also, Morocco's prime minister, Saadeddine Othmani, stated the operation led by the Moroccan forces was a strategic change to open the route in the Mauritania border.[55]

SADR

On 16 November, SADR's minister of foreign affairs Mohamed Salem Ould Salek stated that the end of the war was now linked to the "end of the illegal occupation of parts of the territory of the Sahrawi Republic", and that the war had started as a "consequence of Morocco's aggression and action in Guerguerat".[56]

Domestic reactions[edit source | edit]

Morocco

On 13 November, Sahrawi sources stated that there were mass protests in Laayoune, the unofficial capital of Western Sahara, which is de facto administered by Morocco, against the clashes.[57] The Moroccan media denied these claims, stating that the city's population was in support of the Moroccan forces, citing Laayoune's mayor.[58] Despite that, the NGO media outlet Équipe Media reported that the Moroccan government was exercising a strong police force, and had arrested several activists.[59] The next day, the same source stated that the Moroccan security forces had arrested several demonstrators in Smara.[60]

On 14 November, some Sahrawi tribal leaders issued a joint statement in support of the Moroccan intervention to restore free movement in Guerguerat.[61] More than fifty riders from the Moroccan Bikers Club and the Royal Petanque Club organized on 27 December until 3 January 2021 a trip from Casablanca to the Guerguerat border crossing in a way to express their support for the Moroccan army's move to secure the crossing.[62]

International reactions[edit source | edit]

Supranational and regional organizations

The secretary-general of the United Nations, António Guterres,[63] and the chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki, expressed their grave concern over the conflict, with Faki stating "[The] Saharan issue has gone on for a long time and it has become urgent to solve it as a case of decolonization in the first place and to support the UN efforts in this regard."[64][65] The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, stated that the EU was supporting the efforts of the United Nations to find a peaceful settlement for the conflict, per the Security Council resolutions, and stressing the insurance of freedom of movement in Guerguerat.[66] The secretary-general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Yousef Al-Othaimeen, and the secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Nayef bin Falah Al-Hajraf, stated that they support Morocco's efforts to what they called "securing freedom of civil and commercial movement."[67][68] On 20 November, the Chairperson of the African Union and President of the Republic of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, wrote a letter to the United Nations Security Council that called for "all the parties to uphold the Settlement Plan, which provides for 'a cease-fire' and the holding of a referendum for the people of Western Sahara to exercise their right to self-determination."[69] The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization released a statement voicing its support for Western Sahara and condemned Morocco's "unlawful assertion" of sovereignty over Western Sahara.[70]

Countries

Bahrain,[71] the Central African Republic,[72] Comoros,[72] Democratic Republic of the Congo,[73] Chad,[74][75] Djibouti,[76] Equatorial Guinea,[77] Gabon,[78][76] the Gambia,[79] Guinea-Bissau,[80] Haiti,[81] Jordan,[82] Kuwait,[83] Liberia,[84] Oman,[85] Qatar,[86] Sao Tome and Principe,[72] Saudi Arabia,[87] Senegal,[88] Somalia,[89] Turkey,[90] Yemen (Hadi government),[91] the United Arab Emirates[92] and the United States[93] voiced their support for Morocco, while Guyana withdrew its recognition of the SADR.[94]

The Foreign Ministry of the State of Palestine, which has limited recognition, said it "does not interfere in the internal affairs of the brotherly Arab countries".[95] Egypt,[76] Mauritania,[96] Russia,[97] and Spain[98] have all urged both parties to respect the ceasefire.

South Africa, Algeria and several other states backed the Polisario Front, accused Morocco of violating the ceasefire and urged the UN to appoint a new Western Sahara envoy to restart talks.[99] Algeria also sent 60 tons of food and medical aid to the refugees in Western Sahara.[100] Besides, Spain's second deputy prime minister Pablo Iglesias Turrión,[101] and Venezuela have stated that they supported the right to self-determination of the Sahrawis.

Minorities abroad[edit source | edit]

Sahrawis

On 15 November, a group of Sahrawis staged a rally in front of the Moroccan consulate in Valencia, Spain. The protestors dismantled the flag of Morocco from the consulate, raising the SADR's flag over the building.[102][103] Spain[104] and Morocco[105] condemned the incident.

Analysis[edit source | edit]

According to International Crisis Group's Portuguese analytic Riccardo Fabiani, the conflict could be a "potential breaking point that could have major repercussions", adding that the United Nations had been quite negligent towards this issue.[31]

References[edit source | edit]

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