12:00 am - Friday May 26, 2017

Western Sahara standoff fuels tensions, diplomatic scramble

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massina-benlakehal-mee-western-sahara-military-parade-bTIFARITI, Western Sahara, Nov 3 (Reuters) – At a rocky outpost in Western Sahara, a new generation of soldiers who have never known war are mobilizing as tensions resurface in one of Africa’s oldest disputes after a quarter century of uneasy peace.

Young Sahrawi troops man new desert posts for the Polisario Front, which for more than 40 years has sought independence for the vast desert region – first in a guerrilla war against Morocco and then politically since a ceasefire deal in 1991.

Now a standoff with Morocco, which controls the majority of Western Sahara, is renewing pressure for a diplomatic solution to ensure footsoldiers like Sidi Ahmed Brahim don’t return to fighting as the last generation of commanders once did.

Aged 25, Brahim is as old as the ceasefire and his patience with United Nations efforts to end the decades-long impasse and prevent new desert clashes is wearing thin.

“All my life I’ve been waiting for the U.N. to find a solution,” he said, sitting with a Kalashnikov rifle on his knee where his unit has set up. “Now Morocco is trying to test us.”

The standoff since August has brought Moroccan and Polisario forces within 200 meters (yards) of each other in a narrow strip of land near the Mauritanian border.

With U.N. peacekeepers separating the troops there, this may not escalate into open conflict. But diplomats are struggling to entrench peace in the territory on the western edge of the Sahel, a region which is already scarred by conflicts as governments from Mauritania and Mali to Niger and Chad fight affiliates of al Qaeda, often with western backing.

Rich in phosphate, Western Sahara has been contested since 1975 when Spanish colonial powers left. Morocco claimed the territory and fought the 16-year war with Polisario which established its self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

Like his younger comrades, Brahim has never fought but his father was killed in a last battle with Morocco, not far from where he is stationed close to the village of Tifariti.

“The younger generation wants to find a solution, whatever the cost,” said Brahim, whose unit has set up anti-aircraft cannons and parked aging Russian tanks in the desert.

As he spoke, a United Nations observation helicopter made passes overhead, not far from where spotlights from a small U.N. peacekeeping base illuminate the desert at night.

STANDOFF AT THE BERM

Since the standoff, Polisario has mobilized troops near the Moroccan-built berm, a wall of earth and rocks protected by landmines. Zigzagging for almost 3,000 km (1,800 miles) through Western Sahara, it divides areas controlled by Morocco from those controlled by Polisario.

The latest trouble erupted at the berm’s far southern tip. U.N. troops had to step in after Moroccan gendarmerie crossed the wall into a buffer zone and Polisario responded. Their units remain facing each other at the village of Guerguerat.

The standoff comes at a sensitive time for attempts to restart the diplomatic effort.

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