GUERGUERAT– Morocco has cleared access to the Guerguerat border post, reinforcing positions it took this month to protect the only road leading from Western Sahara to Mauritania.
The kingdom in early November accused the Algeria-backed Polisario Front movement of blocking the key highway for trade with the rest of Africa.
It launched a military operation to reopen it before deploying heavy machinery in the buffer zone at Guerguerat along the sandy track that leads to the frontier.
The route has now been cleared and reduced to a number of interlacing tracks on its last stretch with smoke billowing from debris piled nearby.
Morocco retains its military positions on the ground.
That is in line with Moroccan King Mohamed VI’s orders to secure the area, ensure the flow of traffic and stop any Polisario incursions, a senior government official said in Rabat.
The “parking lots” in Guerguerat have long served as a depot for various goods from Mauritania, providing significant income for locals.
The traders say the Polisario fighters, whom they call “Apaches,” would often block the road link, harming business in the region locals dub “Kandahar” after the city in southern Afghanistan.
Morocco says Western Sahara is an integral part of its kingdom and has offered autonomy for the disputed territory, but insists it will retain sovereignty.
But the former Spanish colony has been contested for decades by the Polisario, which declared Western Sahara the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976. Historical evidence, however, points to ties of allegiance between tribes of the disputed region and the Moroccan monarchy.
The Algerian-backed group says the road was built in violation of a 1991 ceasefire deal.
On November 13, Morocco deployed its armed forces to drive away a group of Polisario fighters who had blocked the route for three weeks, with the support of four armoured vehicles.
In response, the Polisario Front declared the 30-year-old ceasefire signed under UN auspices to be “over.”
Since then, there have been reports of occasional exchanges of fire between the two sides along the 2,700 kilometre (1,700-mile) sand wall erected by the Moroccans.
The United Nations, which has reported no casualties, has been trying to return to the status quo to restart a political process.
In recent days, pro-Polisario activists have tried to protest in some neighbourhoods of Laayoune, in the north of the Moroccan-controlled area, but have clashed with police, according to the Moroccan Human Rights Association.
On Tuesday, a group of Sahrawis in traditional dress demonstrated at Guerguerat, in the far south, shouting “Our Sahara, our king.”
Several local officials, tribal chiefs and African and Arab countries have shown their support for Rabat’s position in recent days.