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World W. Sahara flare-up spells gloom for buffer zone businesses

04:40  25 november  2020
04:40  25 november  2020 Source:   msn.com

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Kamal Zerfi has long run a junkyard in a no-man's land on the far edge of the Sahara desert. Then government soldiers came and things took a turn for the worse.

a truck that is sitting on a rock: A bulldozer passes by a hilltop manned by Moroccan soldiers on a road between Morocco and Mauritania in Guerguerat located in the Western Sahara, on November 23 © Fadel SENNA A bulldozer passes by a hilltop manned by Moroccan soldiers on a road between Morocco and Mauritania in Guerguerat located in the Western Sahara, on November 23

Zerfi lives in a remote outpost of the Western Sahara region claimed by both Morocco and Polisario Front pro-independence rebels who recently revived their three-decade struggle.

a fire truck driving down a dirt road: Trucks behind burning waste on a road between Morocco and Mauritania in Guerguerat © Fadel SENNA Trucks behind burning waste on a road between Morocco and Mauritania in Guerguerat

His auto- and scrapyard is located at the desolate truck stop of Guerguerat in a UN-patrolled buffer zone along the Mauritanian border, where the deployment of Moroccan soldiers has now put paid to his lucrative business.

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Tension in the area flared up a year ago when Morocco moved into the buffer zone , breaching a UN-backed ceasefire. The Polisario Front, which wants independence for Western Sahara , dismissed Morocco's move as a gimmick. Morocco recently rejoined the African Union

a dog walking on a street: A dog carries its puppy on a road between Morocco and Mauritania in Guerguerat located in the Western Sahara © Fadel SENNA A dog carries its puppy on a road between Morocco and Mauritania in Guerguerat located in the Western Sahara

"They've stripped me of my goods!" protested the 42-year-old who said he had been doing good -- and, he insists, legal -- business selling cars on to Mauritania until Rabat sent in the troops on November 13.

Western Sahara has been disputed since the end of Spanish colonial rule. Morocco claims all of it as it own, while Polisario rebels, backed by Algeria, want independence.

Trouble flared again when Rabat recently accused the rebels of blockading the road which links the desert region with Mauritania and the rest of Africa at Guerguerat.

The pro-independence movement, which says the road was built in violation of a 1991 UN-sponsored ceasefire deal, declared the truce null and void and insisted it had no choice but "to intensify the fight for national liberation".

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Traditional animal feeds are becoming increasingly expensive, but in a desert town in the Western Sahara , close to Morocco, farmers are looking for more

Map of Western Sahara. © Adrian LEUNG Map of Western Sahara.

- 'Apaches in Kandahar' -

Zerfi said the rebels, whom he calls "Apaches", would often block the road link, harming business in the region locals dub "Kandahar" after the city in southern Afghanistan.

No UN forces could be seen by a visiting AFP team in the region, known as a hotspot for smuggling of all kinds.

Zerfi, from Marrakesh in southern Morocco, insists his trade is entirely legitimate due to the special status of the demilitarised zone, even if the Moroccan customs service may disagree.

License plates buried in the sand identify the origins of cars that have passed through the junkyard: France, Italy, Spain -- and Germany, the most sought after among Mauritanian buyers, the dealer said.

Now that Moroccan troops have asserted control, tow trucks have taken away the cars that were in decent condition. Spare parts and loads of rubbish, meanwhile, have been set on fire, with acrid black smoke swirling into the sky.

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  Morocco's king warns Polisario after rivals clash in W.Sahara Morocco's king warned Monday that his country would react with the "greatest severity" to any attack in Western Sahara, as the pro-independence Polisario Front said conflict would continue until Rabat ended its "occupation" of the disputed territory. But Morocco also "remains firmly determined to react, with the greatest severity, and in self-defence, against any threat to its security", the king said, quoted in an official statement. The crisis erupted after Morocco launched a military operation Friday to reopen a key highway at the Guerguerat border crossing between the territory and Mauritania.

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- 'State of war' -

Some businesses in the border outpost "have lost everything", said Zerfi, since Moroccan forces arrived to secure the road.

The Polisario has since declared a "state of war" that put an end to its 30-year-old ceasefire with Rabat in the disputed territory.

Rabat has also built a sand wall to secure the road to the border post where Moroccan flags are now displayed.

The "parking lots" in Guerguerat have long served as a depot for various goods from Mauritania, providing significant income for locals.

Since the troop deployment, "those who had deposited goods have recovered them -- but those who left them here have been left with nothing", said Zerfi.

Under the ceasefire deal, Morocco controls around three-quarters of the Western Sahara, including its considerable phosphate deposits and access to its rich Atlantic fisheries. The Polisario controls the rest.

In August 2016, Morocco launched operations to "combat smuggling, drug trafficking, and all forms of illegal trade" in Guerguerat, sparking tensions with the Polisario.

At the time, the UN had finally convinced the two camps to evacuate the buffer zone.

Talks between Morocco and the Polisario, as well as neighbouring Algeria and Mauritania, have been suspended since March 2019.

The UN's envoy for the territory, former German president Horst Kohler, quit in May of that year citing poor health and has not been replaced.

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Western Sahara: scenes of life on the road to Mauritania .
© FADEL SENNA Men meet near trucks filled with goods in Guerguerat, in the far south of Western Sahara, November 26, 2020 Three motels, three cafes, two gas stations, three grocery stores and a hairdresser ... In the dusty hamlet of Guerguerat, in the far south of Western Sahara, all life revolves around the border with Mauritania, on the only road connecting Morocco and West Africa.

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