Trade Rises As Tensions Ease On West Sahara Contested Road

Trade has picked up on a contested road in Western Sahara on Morocco’s border with Mauritania after tensions eased between troops and separatists, officials and truck drivers said on Wednesday.

Moroccan television said truck drivers were no longer being deterred by the presence of armed Polisario Front separatists who had been patrolling the road.

“Their number has gone down considerably,” one driver told a local television station.

A border post official, contacted by AFP, said the flow of trucks carrying goods had stepped up.

“We were handling an average of about 250 vehicles a day but since Tuesday the number has gone up to more than 350. We’re being overwhelmed,” he said.

Rabat on Sunday announced a troop pullback from the Guerguerat zone along the road, in a decision taken by King Mohamed VI at the request of UN chief Antonio Guterres.

The United Nations has also called on the Polisario to evacuate the zone but there has been no such announcement from the Algiers-backed separatists.

Tensions flared last year after the Polisario set up a new military post in Guerguerat near the Mauritanian border, a stone’s throw from Moroccan soldiers.

The move came after Morocco last August started building the tarmac road in the area south of a buffer zone separating the two sides.

The Polisario reacted by stepping up patrols in the zone which it considered a “liberated territory”.

Rabat said the tarmacked road, located inside a buffer zone under a 1991 ceasefire, was designed to combat smuggling.

Newspapers in Rabat say only a four-kilometre stretch of road has been asphalted because Polisario incursions since December had interrupted work.

Several lorries had been intercepted and truck drivers subjected to insults and stone-throwing in past months, according to Moroccan newspapers.

For the separatists, the work aimed to alter the status quo, while Rabat insists on the flow of road traffic for trade between Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa.

Morocco and the Polisario fought for control of the Western Sahara from 1974 to 1991, with Rabat taking over the desert territory before a UN-brokered ceasefire took effect.

Rabat considers the Western Sahara an integral part of Morocco and proposes autonomy, while the Polisario demands self-determination for the resources-rich territory.

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