18:33 GMT25 January 2021
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    The Western Sahara is a huge area of desert bordering the Atlantic Ocean, sandwiched between Morocco and Mauritania. In 1975 the Spanish abandoned the former colony and Morocco laid claim to it.

    British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Friday, 11 December, London would not go along with the United States, which formally recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

    The outgoing US President, Donald Trump,  tweeted on Thursday, 10 December, that  his administration was recognising Morocco’s claim to sovereignty at the same time as it welcomed Rabat’s decision to normalise relations with Israel.

    ​But in a statement Raab said: "I welcome the announcement of the normalisation of relations between Israel and Morocco, which is a positive step between two valued partners of the UK,” but added: “Our position on the status of Western Sahara remains unchanged."

    In 1975 Morocco laid claim to the former Spanish Sahara and fought a 16-year war with the Polisario Front, which proclaimed a Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

    The war ended in a ceasefire in 1991 and the Moroccans agreed to hold a referendum on whether the territory should be independent or part of Morocco. That referendum has never been held and thousands of Saharawis remain in refugee camps near Tindouf in neighbouring Algeria.

    The Polisario Front has vowed to continue the fight against Morocco.

    Polisario Front soldiers raise dust in their wake during a military parade in the Western Sahara village of Tifariti, file photo.
    © AP Photo / Daniel Ochoa de Olza
    Polisario Front soldiers raise dust in their wake during a military parade in the Western Sahara village of Tifariti, file photo.

    The SADR's foreign minister Mohamed Salem Ould Salek said: "Fighting will continue until the total withdrawal of the Moroccan occupation troops."

    A spokeswoman for Saharawi Voices, a collective of journalists from Western Sahara, tweeted: "This (Trump’s move) will affect Saharawis less than it will affect a rules-based international order. Western Sahara is the biggest territory to be militarily occupied by force since World War Two. The US is saying to the world ‘It's fine if you militarily occupy a territory by force, we'll help’."

    Morocco’s decision to normalise relations with Israel follows in the wake of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

    Locations of the various sand walls built by Morocco in Western Sahara

    Earlier this year the French website Intelligence Online reported Morocco had done a $48 million deal to buy Israeli reconaissance planes and it has been suggested they will also be supplied with US-manufactured MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones as part of the deal to normalise relations with Israel.

    It is also a blow to the Palestinians, who for years had received funding from Morocco and had considered them supporters of their cause.

    ​Saharawi Voices tweeted: "Up until now, the Moroccans had used the Palestinian cause and given money to the PLO in exchange for the PLO to keep quiet about the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. Hopefully now the PLO should come to understand why making friends with colonisers is not a good idea."

    Jim Inhofe, the Republican chairman of the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee, said Trump's decision to recognise Moroccan sovereignty was "shocking and deeply disappointing."

    ​He said: "The president has been poorly advised by his team. He could have made this deal without trading the rights of a voiceless people.”

    The Moroccans built huge sand berms across the Western Sahara in an attempt to keep out the Polisario Front but in November the Moroccan government began a militarty operation against the Polisario Front in the Guerguerat buffer zone.

    ​The Moroccan Foreign Ministry claimed they took action after Polisario Front rebels  invaded the Morocco-controlled territory and blocked traffic heading to Mauritania.

    Earlier this month Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, called on all parties in Western Sahara to exercise restraint.

    He spoke on the phone with his Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita.

    Tags:
    Donald Trump, Spain, Israel, Morocco, Western Sahara
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