Borrell urges return to talks following renewed Western Sahara tensions

File photo. Sahrawi soldiers march in a parade in Tifariti in the liberated territories of Western Sahara, 20 May 2008. [Mohamed Messara/EPA/EFE]

The Polisario Front said Sunday (15 November) it was mobilising “thousands of volunteers” to join its fighters, on the third day of a crisis in the disputed Western Sahara that pits the Sahrawis against Morocco.

Rabat launched a military operation on Friday to reopen a key highway on the border between the territory and Mauritania that it said was blocked by the Polisario Front, which seeks independence for Western Sahara.

Moroccan and Mauritanian officials said Saturday that cargo traffic had resumed along the road, which is key for trade with the rest of Africa.

In response to the operation, the Polisario declared the end of an almost three-decade UN-supervised ceasefire in Western Sahara.

“Thousands of volunteers who have completed their training are preparing to head to the militarised regions,” Mohamed Salem Ould Salek, foreign minister of the Polisario-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), told AFP on Sunday.

“Hundreds of others” are undergoing training, he said, adding that “fighting is escalating” along the 2,700 kilometre (1,700 mile) long Moroccan defensive wall that cuts through the Western Sahara.

He provided no further details, and the claims could not be independently verified.

Rabat controls around three quarters of the Western Sahara, a vast swathe of desert on the Atlantic coast, including its phosphate deposits and its lucrative ocean fisheries. The Polisario controls the remainder.

Morocco maintains that Western Sahara is an integral part of the kingdom and has offered autonomy for the disputed territory, but insists it will retain sovereignty.

EU messages  

The Polisario, which proclaimed independence in 1976, demands a referendum on self-determination as set out in the 1991 ceasefire.

The vote has been repeatedly postponed due to disputes between Rabat and the Polisario over voter rolls and the question the ballot would ask.

On Sunday, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell spoke with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita and his Algerian counterpart Sabri Boukadoum, emphasising “the vital importance of ensuring compliance with the ceasefire agreements”, according to an EU statement.

Borrell expressed hope for a “fast return” to UN-supervised talks, suspended since March last year, and the appointment of a new UN envoy for Western Sahara.

German Horst Koehler stepped down from the position in May last year due to health reasons, and it has since remained vacant.

Borrell also emphasised the need to “uphold freedom of movement and cross-border exchanges” in the Guerguerat area, highlighting the impact of this on North Africa and the “strategically important” Sahel region.

Bourita said Morocco was committed to respecting the ceasefire, according to the statement.

Without providing any detail, the Polisario has in recent days reported attacks along the wall put in place by Morocco in the 1980s in the Western Sahara to prevent infiltration by Polisario fighters.

The Moroccan military said it had secured the Guerguerat border crossing by installing “a security cordon” along the wall.

Pictures released by the Moroccan army after the operation on Friday showed burning tents that had reportedly been used by the Polisario near the Mauritania border.

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