Why a remote desert truck stop threatens new war in W.Sahara

Rabat (AFP) –

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For three decades, a UN-monitored ceasefire has kept a fragile peace in the disputed Western Sahara. Now a row over a remote desert truck stop is prompting talk of a return to war.

The pro-independence Polisario Front declared the ceasefire over on Friday, after Morocco deployed military engineers to extend its network of defensive walls to include the last stretch of the road through Western Sahara to neighbouring Mauritania.

Dozens of truck drivers have been stranded for days in Guerguerat, currently the last Moroccan-controlled stop on the highway before it enters a buffer zone patrolled by a UN peacekeeping force, MINURSO, where the Polisario has maintained a periodic presence.

AFP asked top officials from the two sides what was so important about the truck route to Mauritania -- and whether they were really ready to go to war over it.

AFP journalists also asked what had happened at Guerguerat to bring the decades-old dispute over the former Spanish colony to a head.

A planned referendum on its future has been repeatedly delayed ever since the 1991 ceasefire amid disputes over voter lists and the question to be put -- should independence be on the ballot or just autonomy within Morocco.

Speaking for the Polisario was Mohamed Salem Ould Salek, foreign minister of the Sahrawi Arabic Democratic Republic, which the independence movement proclaimed in 1976.

Speaking for Rabat, which has controlled 80 percent of the territory since the 1991 ceasefire, was Hamdi Ould Rachid, governor of Laayoune-Sakia el-Hamra, one of two regions set up to administer Moroccan-controlled areas of the territory.

Why Guerguerat, and why now?

"The road did not exist when the agreement was signed in 1991. For the past three weeks, Sahrawis have been organising peaceful sit-ins to demand the closure of the illegal border post in Guerguerat... in accordance with UN resolutions... and to press for the holding of the self-determination referendum which was planned by the United Nations but has been repeatedly postponed."

"Since the end of the 1980s, Morocco has put in place a wall, a defensive measure which protects the Moroccan Sahara (from infiltration by Polisario fighters).

"The whole zone is sealed except for a gap near Guerguerat, which has not been secured and which the Polisario has exploited by passing through Mauritanian territory."

"Morocco is going to close this gap, making access to the zone impossible."

What is at stake?

"The Sahrawi people feel betrayed.. there's a complete loss of confidence in the actions of the United Nations after three long decades of waiting.

What's now happening is the "logical and unavoidable outcome of the failure of MINURSO".

"Sahrawis are unanimously demanding implementation of the (1991) peace accord now. They are not going to flinch. It is a life or death issue."

"There have been repeated bouts of political manoeuvring in the buffer zone -- whenever the Polisario is unhappy, it chooses to show its disappointment by blocking traffic at Guerguerat.

"That started in late 2016... There is unanimity in the international community about the principle that the circulation of people and goods should not be impeded."

Is this the end of the ceasefire?

"Guerguerat is the last straw... It's an aggression.

"Sahrawi troops are engaged in legitimate self-defence and are responding to the Moroccan troops, which are trying to advance the defensive wall which marks the demarcation line," under the 1991 ceasefire.

"War has started, the Moroccan side has liquidated the ceasefire."

"It's the Polisario's actions which are the real threat to the ceasefire. It's not new but it is dangerous.

"It's a threat when you send civilians, people with weapons, into a buffer zone, when you harass MINURSO, when you check vehicles and deny passage.

"Morocco's goal is to preserve the ceasefire by preventing illegal intrusions" and "putting a stop to provocations".