CAIRO — Morocco has launched a military operation in a United Nations-patrolled buffer strip in Western Sahara, escalating tensions in the contested territory and threatening a fragile truce that has held in the region for almost three decades.
Authorities in Morocco said on Friday that their forces had moved into the buffer strip, at the Guerguerat zone, following weeks of “provocations” from members of the Polisario Front, a pro-independence movement.
Tensions in the region date to 1975 when Morocco annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish protectorate that was also briefly occupied by Mauritania. For years, the Polisario fought for independence from Morocco in an armed resistance that lasted until 1991, when the United Nations negotiated an armistice between the two parties.
Since Oct. 21, the Polisario Front has blocked the movement of goods and people along the key road in the area connecting Morocco and Mauritania, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. The ministry accused the group of carrying out “acts of banditry” and “harassing” U.N. peacekeeping forces operating in the region.
The road lies at the junction of the part of the disputed territory controlled by Morocco and cuts across the buffer strip towards the borders between Western Sahara and Mauritania. The Polisario Front considers the road illegal since they say it was built in violation of the 1991 truce.
Moroccan security forces announced that they had set up a “security cordon” Thursday night to secure the flow of goods and people through the buffer zone and by Friday said that troops had fully secured the crossing. The authorities did not specify how many troops were involved or whether they had any further goal.
Polisario Front officials on Friday accused Moroccan security forces of shooting at civilians who they said had been “demonstrating peacefully” against what they consider Morocco’s plundering of resources and the United Nations’ silence on human rights violations. An official said there were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries.
The Polisario confirmed in a statement on Friday that they attacked Moroccan targets but did not report any deaths or injuries. They also said they were able to evacuate protesters without any harm.
Brahim Ghali, the secretary general of the Polisario Front, said the Moroccan operation constituted an “act of aggression and a flagrant violation of the cease-fire” that came into place in 1991.
By launching the operation, Morocco has undermined “any chances of achieving a peaceful and lasting solution to the decolonization question of Western Sahara,” Mr. Ghali said in a letter to the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres.
A spokesman for Mr. Guterres said he had been engaged in “multiple initiatives” to de-escalate the situation and would do “his utmost to avoid the collapse of the cease-fire.”
When the armistice was declared three decades ago, the U.N. Security Council established a mission to oversee the truce and to plan for a referendum in which the indigenous people in the territory, who are known as Sahrawis, would choose between independence or integration with Morocco.
That referendum has yet to materialize, with thousands of displaced Sahrawis continuing to live in refugee camps near the Algerian town of Tindouf.
The United Nations reported in late October that traffic had been blocked in Guerguerat and urged all parties “to exercise restraint and to take all necessary steps to defuse any tensions.” The Security Council also extended the mandate of the peacekeeping operation until at least October 2021.
Negotiations between the two sides have stalled since former President Horst Köhler of Germany resigned last year as the U.N. envoy on Western Sahara, citing health reasons.
Morocco on Friday said it had apprised the United Nations and neighboring countries about its military plans. In a statement, the Moroccan foreign ministry said it had “no other choice but to assume its responsibilities in order to put an end to the deadlock situation.”
Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s president and the current chairman of the African Union, on Thursday asked officials in Morocco and Western Sahara to de-escalate tensions and return to the negotiating table.