A tactical retreat by Algeria’s proxy is presented as evidence of Moroccan aggression.
Rabat – After Morocco’s forces entered the area surrounding Guerguerat, in the buffer zone, to reopen its border with Mauritania, Algeria framed Polisario’s retreat as evidence of violence. Photography of burning camps spread on social media on Friday morning as the Algerian-backed militia abandoned its position where it had blocked traffic on the border with Mauritania.
Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces (FAR) announced on Thursday night that it aimed to establish a “security cordon” in order to resume trade between Mauritania and Morocco. For weeks, militants of the Algerian-backed Polisario Front have blocked civilian and commercial trucks from crossing the border, grinding to a halt the trade in fruit and vegetables on which Mauritania relies.
Lifting the blockade
The blockade forced the establishment of a costly alternative trade route, shipping produce via sea instead. With few avenues for a negotiated solution, Morocco announced it would clear the border region of militias. A press release by Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces (FAR) announced it aimed to “secure the flow of goods and people” through a “non-offensive operation.”
Moroccan forces had received rules of engagement, according to the FAR statement. Morocco’s military stated it would avoid all contact with civilians and its military officers were only permitted to use force after sustaining fire.
Yet Algeria’s press presented Morocco’s operation on its only border crossing with Mauritania as an outright declaration of war, decrying “aggression against Polisario forces.” Polisario and Algeria are presenting Morocco’s response to weeks of provocation as an outright declaration of war.
Polisario, hosted, armed, and funded by Algeria, called Morocco’s response to the blocking of essential trade a violation of the 1991 ceasefire. Polisario is claiming Morocco has begun a battle and ignited war.
Advancing Moroccan forces intended to lift the border blockade this morning. At 9:10 a.m. MINURSO moved to the Moroccan position in Guerguerat. Fifteen minutes earlier, local Polisario forces had decided to retreat from their encampment, setting it on fire as they left. Images of the burning camp circulated on social media, with those sharing them implying that it had been the result of fighting with the FAR.
Supporters of Polisario shared images of an ambulance beside a Moroccan helicopter as “evidence” of Moroccan casualties, yet the photograph dates back to 2015. The image was part of a story on two Spanish speleologists who died due to an accident in the High Atlas mountains.
Algerian outlet Liberte Algerie described the events in the border region as “Moroccan military aggression,” calling the militant group and its supporters blocking the border peaceful demonstrators. Reports did not mention how a “sit-in” by “peaceful demonstrators” had successfully managed to block all trade in the region.
Algeria and its allies present the conflict between Morocco and Polisario as an independence struggle. They present local Sahrawis as the sole beneficiaries of an independent state with Morocco as the “oppressor” denying them that fate. In reality the conflict is both more complex and more simple. The Polisario Front, which opposes Morocco’s sovereignty in the region, directly receives backing, funding, and arms from Algeria, Morocco’s key political rival.
Algeria has repeatedly tried to emphasize its role as an “observer” to the conflict in Morocco’s south, yet it hosts the Polisario Front, arms them with outdated Russian military equipment, and directly feeds the Polisario’s “capital” in the Tindouf camps located on its soil.
Amid a disastrous new wave of COVID-19 in Algeria and a referendum that only highlighted distrust in government, the renewed tensions in Morocco’s south will come as a convenient distraction for disaffected Algerians. For Algeria, an independent Polisario state would mean effectively encircling Morocco.
While Algeria’s press presented Polisario’s retreat as an act of aggression by Morocco, the proxy force attacked Moroccan positions in the north-east of Western Sahara. The offensive was likely a symbolic act intending to bring up memories of a 1979 massacre of Moroccan infantrymen in the same location.
This time, however, Moroccan soldiers were not caught by surprise, and used anti-tank equipment to stop the attack.