The U.N. Scrambles to Contain an Escalating Conflict in Western Sahara

The U.N. Scrambles to Contain an Escalating Conflict in Western Sahara
Polisario Front rebel soldiers in the Western Sahara region of Tifariti, May 20, 2008 (AP photo by Daniel Ochoa de Olza).

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The decades-long dispute between Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front in the region of Western Sahara is threatening to erupt into a full-blown war. Frustrated by the lack of international attention to its cause and angered by a recent Moroccan military operation in a United Nations-monitored buffer zone, the Polisario Front broke a three-decade-long cease-fire agreement last weekend. U.N. officials are scrambling to restore the broken deal, as Moroccan and Polisario forces have continued to exchange fire.

Morocco launched its operation last week after accusing Polisario forces of blockading a key trade route to neighboring Mauritania. The two sides exchanged gunfire when Moroccan troops crossed into restricted territory to establish a security cordon around the highway outside Guerguerat, a town in the far southern corner of Western Sahara. Polisario officials then declared the cease-fire over, announcing the “resumption of armed struggle in defense of the legitimate rights of our people.” Shooting has continued along the 1,700-mile buffer zone that separates the two sides, according to U.N. officials. Though no casualties have been confirmed, experts warn the fighting could escalate.

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