UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The Polisario Front movement seeking independence for the disputed Western Sahara accused Morocco on Tuesday of violating a 1991 cease-fire agreement by sending troops and equipment into the territory.
Morocco's Interior Ministry said security forces and customs officials have been carrying out an operation near the Mauritania border aimed at dismantling "smuggling rings and illegal commercial trade" in the area.
U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said the U.N. mission in Western Sahara, known as MINURSO, is contacting the Polisario Front and Morocco about the alleged violations in the territory's southwest near the border with Mauritania to determine the facts.
The mission "will deploy its capabilities if it is so required as per its mandate," Haq said.
Morocco annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, in 1975 and fought the Polisario Front. The U.N. brokered a cease-fire in 1991 and established MINURSO to monitor it and help prepare a referendum on the territory's future, which has never taken place.
Morocco considers Western Sahara its "southern provinces" and has proposed wide-ranging autonomy, but the Polisario Front insists on self-determination through a referendum for the local population, as called for in U.N. resolutions.
Morocco expelled more than 70 U.N. civilian staffers linked to the peacekeeping mission in March to protest Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's perceived gaffe in using the word "occupation" to describe Morocco's annexation of Western Sahara. Twenty-five staffers returned last month but MINURSO is still not fully operational — and the U.N. has not said when it will be.
Brahim Ghali, recently elected head of the Polisario, sent a letter to the U.N. chief on Tuesday saying Moroccan forces that penetrated the Karkarat area "supported with transport equipment, military engineering and accompanied with aerial reconnaissance, constitute a new and serious breach of military agreement No. 1 of the cease-fire agreement."
Polisario official Brahim Mohamed Mahmud called the alleged violation "blatant and unprecedented" and demanded that MINURSO "ensure compliance with all terms of the cease-fire agreement ... and urgently take steps to prevent similar provocative acts to happen," according to the Polisario's Sahara Press Service.
Morocco's Interior Ministry said in Tuesday's statement that the operation in Guerguerat in Ouad Dahab province began Sunday — which was the 37th anniversary of Morocco gaining control of the province which is considered part of Western Sahara — and is still continuing.
According to the statement, the operation has targeted and successfully broken apart "three meeting points," clearing the area of more than 600 cars and an unspecified amount of smugglers.