CAIRO – The leader of an independence group in Western Sahara declared war on Morocco on Saturday, shattered a three-decade-long ceasefire and threatened a full-blown military conflict in the disputed desert area in northwestern Africa.

The announcement came a day after Morocco launched a military operation in a UN-controlled buffer zone after independence group, the Polisario Front, was accused of blocking access to neighboring Mauritania.

The outbreak of hostilities in Western Sahara is adding to the instability of some of Africa’s largest countries, with a protracted war in Libya, a long smoldering insurrection in Mali, and the threat of civil war in Ethiopia.

On Friday, Morocco said it had set up a “security chain” on a major road connecting the country with Mauritania, which the Polisario said is illegal as the independence group claims it opposed the 1991 UN-brokered ceasefire violated.

Both sides said late Friday they had exchanged fires but confirmed no deaths or injuries. Nor did they state how many combatants were involved on each side.

The Polisario Front accused Morocco of shooting at peaceful protesters who the independence group said were demonstrating against the so-called plundering of resources from the Sahrawi, the people who live in Western Sahara – all under the supervision of the UN peacekeeping mission in the disputed area.

The General Secretary of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, issued a decree announcing the “resumption of the armed struggle in defense of the legitimate rights of our people”.

The Moroccan authorities did not immediately respond to the announcement.

The decision to end the ceasefire commitment that had defined the conflict for decades now threatens to resolve long-simmering tensions between the Moroccan kingdom and the liberation movement.

Western Sahara, a sparsely populated area, was occupied by Morocco in 1975 after the Spanish colonial authorities withdrew. The Polisario, a socialist guerrilla movement founded in 1973, waged a war of independence and founded the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, recognized by organizations such as the African Union.

The United Nations helped broker a ceasefire in 1991, with the stipulation that a referendum should be held to decide whether the people of Western Sahara would choose independence or integration with Morocco. This referendum has yet to take place, mainly because the two sides cannot agree on who makes up the indigenous peoples of the territory and therefore should take part in the vote.

The conflict has resulted in Morocco controlling around 80 percent of the disputed territory and thousands of Saharawi people living in a protracted displaced situation near the Algerian city of Tindouf.

Talks between the two sides have been vexatious for years, with some observers worrying that terrorist groups could gain a foothold in the vast desert and further undermine stability in the region. Negotiations have essentially stalled since 2019 after the former UN special envoy resigned for health reasons.

The escalating tensions in recent days have raised concerns at the United Nations, the African Union, and the nations of North Africa and the Middle East. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said in a statement on Friday that he was “determined to do everything possible to remove all obstacles to the resumption of the political process”.

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