RABAT, APR 25 – Morocco summoned the Spanish ambassador Saturday in “exasperation” after the leader of the Western Saharan independence movement was allowed into Spain for medical care, an official source told.
The Spanish foreign ministry said Thursday that Brahim Ghali, who heads the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, is being treated for Covid-19 and had been transferred to Spain for “strictly humanitarian reasons”.
“This will not obstruct or trouble the excellent relations Spain has with Morocco,” Spanish foreign minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya said at a press conference Friday.
But her counterpart Nasser Bourita expressed Morocco’s “incomprehension and exasperation” and “demanded an explanation” from Spain’s ambassador, a Moroccan official told AFP late Saturday.
The status of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony which the United Nations classifies as a “non-self-governing territory”, has for decades pitted Morocco against the Polisario, who demand a referendum on an independent state.
Ghali, who is in his seventies, is recovering well, according to the movement.
On Saturday a group of refugees appealed to the Spanish authorities to arrest him, in a video published by Moroccan media.
They allege that he is responsible for human rights crimes carried out at a camp for refugees from Western Sahara in the town of Tindouf in neighbouring Algeria run by the Polisario.
Human Rights Watch in 2014 published a report alleging that residents of several Polisario-run camps around Tindouf faced curbs on some rights, pointing to “credible allegations” of harassment of critics.
The Polisario fought a war of independence with Morocco from 1975 to 1991 and its leaders proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in February 1976.
A war with the Polisario ensued, ending in 1991 with a UN-brokered ceasefire.
Morocco has offered autonomy but maintains the territory is a sovereign part of the kingdom.
Tensions rose sharply in November 2020 after Rabat deployed the army to reopen the kingdom’s only highway into West Africa, which had been blocked by the Polisario, who argued it was built in violation of the UN truce deal.
The two sides have since exchanged regular fire along the demarcation line, though claims are difficult to independently verify in the hard-to-access area.
The Polisario Front announced earlier this month that its police chief Addah al-Bendir was killed in the field, in an attack that has been reported as a possible first ever drone strike by the Moroccan military in the contested territory.