Why a lone truck stop in the desert threatens another war in Western Sahara

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For three decades, a UN-monitored ceasefire has maintained a fragile peace in disputed Western Sahara. Today, a row over a remote desert truck stop prompts talk of a return to war.

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

Dozens of truckers 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, the MINURSO, where the Polisario maintained a periodic presence.

AFP asked senior officials from both sides what was so important about the truck route to Mauritania and if they were really prepared to go to war over it.

AFP journalists also questioned what happened in Guerguerat to spark the decades-old dispute over the former Spanish colony.

A planned referendum on its future has been repeatedly delayed since the 1991 ceasefire amid disputes over voter rolls and the question to be asked – should independence be on the ballot or just l autonomy within Morocco.

On behalf of the Polisario, Mohamed Salem Ould Salek, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, proclaimed by the independence movement in 1976.

On behalf of Rabat, which controls 80% of the territory since the 1991 ceasefire, Hamdi Ould Rachid, governor of Laayoune-Sakia el-Hamra, one of the two regions created to administer the areas of the territory under Moroccan control , spoke on behalf of Rabat.

Why Guerguerat, and why now?

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

“Since the end of the 1980s, Morocco has put up a wall, a defensive measure that protects the Moroccan Sahara (from the infiltration of Polisario fighters).

“The whole area is cordoned off except for a breach near Guerguerat which was not secured and which the Polisario exploited by passing through Mauritanian territory”.

“Morocco will close this gap, making access to the area impossible.”

What’s at stake?

“The Saharawi people feel betrayed… there is a total loss of confidence in the actions of the United Nations after three long decades of waiting.

What is happening now is “the logical and inescapable outcome of MINURSO’s failure”.

“The Sahrawis unanimously demand the implementation of the peace agreement (1991) now. They are not going to waver. It is a question of life and death.”

“There have been repeated political maneuvers in the buffer zone – whenever the Polisario is unhappy, it chooses to show its disappointment by blocking traffic in Guerguerat.

“It started at the end of 2016… There is unanimity within the international community on the principle that the movement of people and goods must not be hindered.”

Is this the end of the ceasefire?

“Guerguerat is the last straw… It’s an attack.

“Sahrawi troops are engaged in self-defense and responding to Moroccan troops, who are trying to advance the defensive wall that marks the demarcation line”, as part of the 1991 ceasefire.

“The war has started, the Moroccan side has liquidated the ceasefire.”

“It is the actions of the Polisario that are the real threat to the ceasefire. It is 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 objective is to preserve the ceasefire by preventing illegal intrusions” and “putting an end to provocations”.

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