Tensions have steadily increased in recent weeks with Morocco’s diplomatic gains in the Western Sahara dispute frustrating the separatist group and its backer, Algeria.
Rabat – Faced with the militant Polisario Front’s continued incursions in the UN-mandated buffer zone between Morocco and Mauritania and its blockade of cross-border traffic, Morocco began on Friday, November 13, to mobilize its army in Guerguerat.
Guerguerat is a town along the border between Morocco and Mauritania. It is also included in the buffer zone established by MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara. The road through Guerguerat is essential in Morocco’s trade links to West Africa.
Morocco’s decision to “act” came in response to more than two months of Polisario’s provocative acts in Guerguerat, where it has blocked traffic and held anti-Morocco protests. A Polisario blockade has stranded some 200 Moroccan truck drivers on the Mauritanian side of the Guerguerat crossing for weeks.
On Wednesday, Mauritania reinforced its army positions in the border town. A government spokesperson for the West African country and “neutral” party to the Western Sahara dispute said the move came in response to Polisario’s disruption of supplies to Mauritanian markets.
Despite repeated warnings from the UN, Moroccan officials, and even King Mohammed VI to leave the area, Polisario continues its attempts to destabilize the status quo in the region and threatened earlier this week to end the nearly three-decades-old ceasefire agreement with Morocco.
Polisario followed through with its threats on Friday morning, attacking Mahbes, a settlement along the Moroccan defense wall.
Here is a rundown of the events so far.
Thursday night to Friday morning
Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces (FAR) established a security cordon at the border post in Guerguerat in order to secure the flow of goods and people between Morocco and Mauritania.
“This non-offensive operation, without any bellicose intent, is taking place according to clear rules of engagement to avoid any contact with civilians and to resort to the use of arms only in self-defense,” FAR announced in a press release.
On Friday morning, Morocco mobilized its military forces towards Guerguerat, prompting Polisario to evacuate its makeshift encampment 2.5 kilometers south of the Moroccan border post.
“Morocco has given all the time necessary to the offices of the secretary-general of the United Nations and of MINURSO, in order to bring the ‘Polisario’ to cease its destabilizing actions and leave the buffer zone of Guerguerat,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared in a statement.
“However, the appeals of MINURSO and the UN secretary-general, as well as the interventions of several members of the Security Council, unfortunately, remained in vain,” the statement stressed.
“Morocco has decided to act, in accordance with its attributions, by virtue of its duties and in full compliance with international legality,” it continued. Morocco had “no other choice but to assume its responsibilities in order to put an end to the blockade generated by these actions and restore free civil and commercial movement.”
At 8:55 a.m. on Friday morning, Polisario elements, startled by the mobilization, set fire to their tents, packed into their vehicles, and fled east.
At 9:10 a.m. on Friday morning, the local UN peacekeeping unit joined the Moroccan border post in Guerguerat. The unit includes a UN special representative of the secretary-general, who is of South African nationality, as well as a Lebanese security officer and three military observers from Pakistan and Egypt.
Although the dust was settling in Guerguerat, Polisario decided to wage hostilities far from the border post—but still in the buffer zone.
The spokesperson for the self-styled “Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic” issued a statement announcing that “the fighting has started and war is declared.”
The Polisario Front then launched an attack north of the Moroccan defense wall in Mahbes, in the UN-restricted buffer zone—effectively breaking the ceasefire. Mahbes was a site of clashes during the Western Sahara war.
Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces retaliated with anti-tank means to neutralize the enemy.
The Front and its supporters, along with Algerian media outlets, disseminated fake reports of injuries among Moroccan soldiers, using photos of a 2015 rescue mission to claim that Morocco sent helicopters to aid injured troops in the buffer zone.
Upon hearing of Morocco’s mobilization, the leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, fled the separatist group’s headquarters in Tindouf, southwestern Algeria.
On Friday evening, Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces announced that it has “completely secured” the Guerguerat border crossing between Morocco and Mauritania.
The statement assured that Morocco’s armed forces executed the security operation with respect for clear rules of engagement prescribed to avoid any contact with civilians.
During the operation, the armed militia of the separatist Polisario Front opened fire on Moroccan forces, who retaliated. Polisario fled, but FAR reports no casualties occurred.
Morocco’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also released a statement Friday evening to affirm the FAR operation “took place in a peaceful manner, without clashes or threats to the safety of civilians.”