Morocco-Algeria: The silent struggle being waged in the Sahara

By Nina Kozlowski
Posted on Monday, 18 April 2022 08:19

In Guerguerat, 24 November 2020, after the Moroccan army intervened to unblock the crossing point to Mauritania. FADEL SENNA/AFP © FADEL SENNA/AFP

Algiers has made new accusations against Rabat, which allegedly bombed innocent civilians in Mauritania on 10 April.

On 12 April, Algeria issued a communiqué condemning “targeted assassinations committed with sophisticated weapons of war by the Kingdom of Morocco, outside its internationally recognised borders against innocent civilians from three countries in the [Sahara] region.”

The events happened on 10 April, the day the Polisario Front announced that they would be “breaking off all contact with Pedro Sanchez’s Spanish government”, following Madrid’s diplomatic shift on the Sahara in favour of Morocco.

Although the Polisario press agency, Sahara Press Service, mentioned new “Moroccan strikes on property belonging to unarmed civilians in the Saharawi Republic’s liberated territories,” it did not report any deaths.

“Harassing civilians”

The website of journalist , reputedly well-informed on Algerian military affairs, first reported this information on 10 April. “The Moroccan air force carried out eight air strikes around 5am against a group of trucks and merchants in the Ain Ben Tili region, located in the far north of Mauritania,” wrote Algerian journalist Akram Kharief. In November, his website site has also reported that several Algerian trucks in Bir Lahlou had been bombed.

His version of events differs somewhat from the Algerian government’s communiqué, in that he speaks of an “attack that did not result in any deaths” but several injuries. Although he mentions the “Ain Ben Tili region”, the journalist was not able to confirm the exact location of this attack.

The village of Ain Ben Tili is located a few hundred metres from the border separating Mauritania from the Polisario-controlled part of the Sahara. The site of the bombing is less than a kilometre from the eponymous fort, a transit and supply point for truckers. According to Kharief’s information, the travellers were just gathering for morning prayers and their last meal before fasting when the vehicles were bombed.

Algeria condemned Morocco’s “expansionist aims” and “state terrorism”, while also pointing out that a “relentless attack on civilians” and “intentional and premeditated homicide” had taken place this time.

Mauritania breaks its silence

Ain Ben Tili is not just a simple crossing point. At the end of November, the Mauritanian army reinforced its military surveillance in Tiris Zemmour, a prefecture located in the northern part of the country, near the Moroccan border, to which Ain Ben Tili is attached.

At a press briefing on 13 April, the Mauritanian government spokesman, Muhammad Maa El-Enein Ould Ayaih, said that the operation had taken place outside his country. According to him, “Mauritania was not the target of the accident”, even though he noted “the presence of Mauritanian nationals among the victims.” On that same day, the Mauritanian website Zerouatemedia revealed that a woman and her nephew, both Mauritanian, had been killed.

This is not the first time that Mauritanian nationals have been victims of air strikes in the area. On 3 January, three gold miners were killed in Gleibat El Foula, located in a “restricted zone” on the western side of the Moroccan defence wall. Zerouatemedia reported at the time that several Mauritanian awareness campaigns had been conducted among gold miners to dissuade them from venturing into these sometimes militarised areas outside Mauritania’s borders.

A few months earlier, in May 2021, the Mauritanian News Agency (AMI) reported that the Algerian army had fired “shots” at gold miners who had ventured “9km into Algerian territory.”

“Propaganda”

Despite being confronted with new accusations from Algeria and the Polisario, Morocco has still not reacted officially. After three Algerian truckers died in early November, the Rabat-based Agence France Presse (AFP) reported the words of “an informed official source” who denied “the Algerian presidency’s accusations”:

“If Algeria wants war, Morocco doesn’t. Morocco will never be drawn into a spiral of violence and regional destabilisation. If Algeria wants to drag the region into war, through provocations and threats, Morocco will not follow. Morocco has never targeted and will never target Algerian citizens, regardless of the circumstances and provocations.”

When RFI and France 24 asked Nasser Bourita, the head of Moroccan diplomacy, about the various accusations that Algeria had made on 6 February, he simply replied: “I stopped listening to what Algerian diplomacy says a long time ago.”

The same is true within military circles: “No one attaches any importance to this propaganda,” says military expert Abdelhamid Harifi, referring to “no-go areas to the east and south of the security wall.” “Morocco has warned all parties concerned that all these areas are off limits. So if civilians enter them without permission and die, it is their fault,” he said.

Five months after Minurso launched an investigation into the deaths of the three Algerian truckers, no conclusions have been made public, except that “two trucks suffered significant damage near Bir Lahlou.” Morocco considers this region a militarised zone, even though the locality is located more than 30km from the Moroccan defence wall.

A monopoly in Guerguerat?

According to several experts, Bir Lahlou could be the object of an increased FAR offensive because it is located near the road between Algeria and Mauritania, the strategic Ouargla-Nouackhott axis.

For his part, Amar Belani, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s Maghreb adviser, interviewed on the subject by the Algerian media site TSA, the strikes attributed to Morocco aim to “hinder trade between Algeria and Mauritania.”

The end of the ceasefire between Morocco and Polisario in November 2020 took place while members of the Polisario blocked for several weeks the strategic crossing point of Guerguerat, located on the Moroccan-Mauritanian border. The region has the only road linking Morocco to West Africa. In 2017, King Mohammed VI earmarked €7bn for this part of the Sahara to turn it into an economic hub.

Since then, the FAR have consolidated their position by protecting the passage with a sand wall and demolishing the last stretch of road. They have also continued to carry out operations in the territories controlled by the Polisario.

Although Rabat has already denounced the “harassment” of Polisario fighters, the latter regularly announces – without providing proof – human losses on the Moroccan side.

Both Algiers and the Polisario clearly want to attract the UN’s attention. On 20 April, the Security Council will meet in the presence of Staffan de Mistura, the UN secretary-general’s personal envoy, and Alexander Ivanko, the head of Minurso. This meeting is expected to result in two reports and a new resolution.

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