Moroccan security forces launched an operation in the Guerguerat buffer zone in the disputed Western Sahara territory on Friday, November 13. Moroccan officials stated that the aim of the operation was to stop "provocations" by the pro-independence Polisario Front, which governs some 20 percent of the territory as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Morocco alleges that the group has been hindering the passage of trucks between Mauritania and Moroccan-controlled areas of the territory, with the United Nations recently citing isolated incidents of roadblocks in and around Guerguerat.
A spokesperson for the Polisario Front issued a statement following the launch of the operation, stating that the action was equivalent to a declaration of war. Moroccan media reports indicate that while the operation in Guerguerat has not been met with resistance from the Polisario Front, the group responded with an attack in the Mahbes area, where Moroccan forces reportedly repelled an attack against their lines with the use of anti-tank weapons. There have been no reports of casualties so far.
Further clashes are likely along the Moroccan Western Sahara berm, which divides the territory between Moroccan and Polisario Front-controlled areas.
The pro-Sahrawi independence Polisario Front emerged as an insurgent group against Spanish colonial forces in the early 1970s. Conflict between the group and Morocco broke out in 1975 when Morocco and Mauritania annexed the territory following the withdrawal of Spain. The 1975-1991 Western Sahara War ended with a ceasefire, leaving the Polisario Front-led Sahrawi Arabic Democratic Republic with control over approximately 20 percent of the territory, as well as control over Sahrawi refugee camps along the Algerian border. Protests and small-scale clashes have broken out in the territory since 1991. Tensions have remained particularly high in the southwestern Guerguerat area, on the border with Mauritania, where allegations of Moroccan road-building activities in 2016 led to a military build-up on both sides.
United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) peacekeeping forces have been deployed in many areas of the territory since the 1991 ceasefire. However, the original goal of holding a referendum on the future of the territory has been all but abandoned and the mission has been left monitoring the uneasy ceasefire between the Polisario Front and Moroccan forces Despite returning to near full authorized strength in 2017 following the brief expulsion of its staff from the territory a year earlier, the mission's operational capabilities have been constrained by a lack of resources and remain limited. In many areas, including the flashpoint region of Guerguerat, peacekeepers have been unable to patrol off of major roads due to the high threat from landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO). Threats against MINURSO personnel have also led to operations and monitoring being limited to daylight hours and restricted operational movements east of the berm.
Those in Western Sahara are advised to remain vigilant and closely monitor the situation in the territory. Travelers should be aware that Western Sahara remains a complex operational environment and any required deployments should be only be undertaken following a thorough location-specific threat assessment
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