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Spain backs Morocco’s plan to rule Western Sahara

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Spain backs Morocco’s plan to rule Western Sahara

MADRID — In an effort to de-escalate tensions with Morocco, Spain has for the first time recognized a plan devised by an African country to rule Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony torn apart by five decades of separatist conflict Is.

Support for Morocco’s plan to give Western Sahara some level of autonomy could herald a “new phase” in Spain’s ties with Morocco, Madrid officials said late Friday, announcing the move. But the development was quickly condemned by representatives of the Polisario Front, a separatist movement in Western Sahara that represents the Sahrawi ethnic group.

Morocco’s plan would allow the Sahrawis to run their administration, but under Moroccan sovereignty and with Morocco in charge of defense and foreign affairs.

The Polisario Front, which has long fought Moroccan control of Western Sahara, with support from neighboring Algeria, has called for a 1991 ceasefire and a referendum on self-determination as determined by UN-mediated talks.

Spain has previously sought to remain equitable in the conflict, calling for a UN-brokered agreement that would complement previous UN resolutions. But during a news conference late Friday, Mr Albers described Morocco’s autonomy plan as “the most serious, realistic and credible basis” for resolving the conflict on Western Sahara.

Morocco’s foreign ministry welcomed “constructive commitments” from Spain on Western Sahara, saying the change creates “a clear and ambitious road map” that will strengthen ties with Madrid.

Spain and Morocco have often fought over Western Sahara. Last year, Morocco recalled its ambassador to protest Madrid’s decision to allow Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali to be treated for COVID-19 under a pseudonym at a hospital in northern Spain. Mr Ghali’s visit was revealed after the sudden entry of thousands of migrants into Ceuta, a Spanish coastal enclave in North Africa. Spain claimed that the influx was facilitated by Morocco temporarily removing border surveillance.

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Spain’s foreign minister, José Manuel Albers, is set to travel to the Moroccan capital Rabat in the coming two weeks to confirm his country’s new stance. Mr Albers became foreign minister when his predecessor, Arancha González Laya, was ousted following complaints from Morocco about Mr Galli’s secret visit to Spain.

A Spanish federation that supports Western Saharan’s claim of self-determination, described Madrid’s U-turn as “a new treason against the Saharan people”. The association, CEAS-Sahara, said in a statement on Saturday that “the only solution that is fair, realistic and political is that the Saharan people are elected by a self-determination referendum, based on international law.”

The people of Western Sahara, CEAS-Sahara said, will never accept a state of autonomy within Morocco.

Western Sahara is a vast, arid region in northwestern Africa that is larger than Britain but has a population of less than 600,000. In 1979, a United Nations resolution recognized the right of the people of the region to “self-determination and independence”, recognized the Polisario Front as their representative, and “deeply regrets” the Moroccan occupation.

Spain’s innings marks another significant diplomatic victory for Morocco, after the US administration of former President Donald J. Trump recognized Morocco’s control of Western Sahara in late 2020. In parallel, Morocco normalized relations with Israel.

After the withdrawal of Spain in 1975, Moroccan forces occupied Western Sahara. But the Polisario Front declared independence, calling the region the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. At the end of the 16 Years’ War, Morocco was given control of most of the territory. Since then, further episodes of fighting have broken out, while the promise to hold a referendum, which was part of the ceasefire agreement, has not been fulfilled despite repeated UN-mediated talks about the vote.

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Jose Taboda Valdés, Honorary President of CEAS-Sahara, said: “If there is anything that has been demonstrated in more than 45 years of struggle, it will not end until the people freely decide their future. The rights of the people of Saharan cannot be used as exchange currency in our relations with Morocco.”

In an attempt to nurture ties with Morocco, Mr. Taboda Valdés said, Spain also risked eroding its position with Algeria, a major supplier of the country’s gas, at a time when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has affected Europe. Energy prices in the U.S. have been forced to rise even higher. ,

Relations between Algeria and Morocco have been strained for some time. In August, the dispute over Western Sahara was still ongoing and, partly in protest of rapprochement with Israel, the Algerian government severed diplomatic relations with Morocco. A month later, Algeria closed its airspace to Morocco, and in November, it briefly cut gas supplies to Morocco.

The closure of that pipeline was intended to deprive Morocco of tens of millions of dollars in fees when gas transits the country en route to Spain. This was also a big problem for Madrid, which imports almost half of its gas from Algeria, just as fuel prices were rising across Europe.

Spain’s shift to Western Sahara could also cause tensions in the minority leftist coalition government in Madrid. Unidas Podemos leftist party leader Yolanda Díaz, a junior partner in the government led by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, said on Twitter that she was committed to “protecting the Sahara people” and complying with UN resolutions.

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