The Western Sahara Sand Trap

Sand Berm, Western Sahara
Photo: AFP
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The world has changed in many ways in the past 50 years. Global population has doubled, and well over half of the people alive in the world today were born after the United Nations requested, in 1965, that Spain de-colonise the territory of Western Sahara, which it had occupied since the late 19th century. But Spain would not relinquish the last colonial country in Africa so readily, and for the next 7 years the request for Spain to organise a referendum to establish the will of the people with regard to the future of Western Sahara was an annual fixture on the UN agenda.

To break out of this state of political limbo required more than a yearly repetition of the referendum request. The POLISARIO (Frente Para la Liberación de Saguia Al Hamra y Rio de Oro) was established in 1973 to force a change in tempo, by voicing the demands of the Saharawi and confronting the Spanish military. The initial impact seemed promising: the following year the first census was conducted and hopes began to rise that a lasting solution for independence was at hand. Those hopes evaporated as neighbouring Mauritania and Morocco replaced Spain as occupiers in 1976, and began a military pincer movement against the Saharwi. Increasingly, local inhabitants were driven into desert regions or to Algeria as refugees, victims of ambitious geopolitical competition between Morocco, which continues to uphold its territorial claims, and Mauritania, which eventually relinquished and withdrew.

Sand Berm, Western Sahara Photo: AFP

Sand Berm, Western Sahara
Photo: AFP

And that is where we find the Saharwi today. Trapped in the sand behind a gigantic berm 2,700 kilometers long, laced with unknown thousands of landmines, heavily guarded by an estimated 100,000 Moroccan troops, with UN peacekeeping force MINURSO deployed to ensure the 1991 ceasefire agreement is upheld. Despite voting in favour of it, the Kingdom of Morocco has still not acceded to the Mine Ban Treaty and, while both sides have agreed to cooperate with MINURSO to identify and remove mines and other unexploded ordnance, the berm is not included in the agreement. All major settlements, including the capital, are on the side occupied by Morocco, which encourages settlers and enters into trading agreements for Western Saharan resources such as phosphates, oil, fisheries, and even the sand. Goods produced in the occupied territory are regularly discovered being mislabelled “Made in Morocco”. All of these infractions are vigorously denounced by activists, with some notable successes in recent years.

Photo: canariasahora.es

Saharwi Refugees
Photo: canariasahora.es

On the other side of this monstrous wall the Saharwi wait to reclaim their rights, while their resources are plundered. They live on the goodwill of others, humanitarian assistance and charitable donations, while the wealth of their land lines the coffers of Morocco. It is estimated that between 90,000 and 165,000 people are living in the 5 camps they created over thirty years ago, when they fled the fighting. A reliable population census would facilitate the referendum these people were promised, which explains the wide gap between the lower estimate from Morocco and the upper estimate from the Saharwi. They didn’t expect to be living in these camps for so many years, decades even. Some of them have family on the other side of the barrier they have not seen for 30 years. MINURSO tries to arrange reunions, but the list is long and only a few people at a time can be granted this brief respite.

Gdeim Izik camp destroyed by military to crush 2010 protests

Gdeim Izik camp destroyed by military to crush 2010 protests

The record of human rights abuse against the Saharwi is appalling, including aerial bombardment, the use of white phosphorous, arbitrary detention, torture, persecution, and rape.  Although this situation has existed for many years, the UN envoy requested an extension of MINURSO’s mandate after the brutal repression of a mass demonstration and sit-in at Laayoune on 10 November 2010. Some keen-eyed observers have labeled this event as the true beginning of the uprisings that have engulfed the region since then, the so-called “Arab Spring”.  After a two-year delay, Saharwi activists were given sentences ranging between 20 years and life in a military trial, condemned by Amnesty International as “flawed from the outset.” The protests, and the military repression against them, continue. The UN mission is not documenting human rights abuses in Western Sahara, so activists have created their own crowdsource space to gather reports and evidence.

Most fascinating, that  in this desert wilderness against a backdrop of despair, democracy has bloomed. The POLISARIO has a functioning government supported by local committees, and a refreshingly progressive attitude towards equality and discrimination on gender, education, disability, and religion. Communities had no choice but to adapt to develop, improving in stages with each successive generation of these fiercely independent and strong-willed people. As often happens under extreme hardship and oppression, creative pursuits, especially music and community events, play a very important role in Saharwi culture. One of the best-known musical artists, Mariem Hassan, is welcomed around the world. This October, a repeat of the hugely successful FiSahara Film Festival is planned. The project is run by the Spanish Network of Organizations in Solidarity with the Western Sahara (CEAS), a non-profit NGO based in Spain with humanitarian projects in the Saharwi refugee camps. Organisers are currently processing registrations, and making arrangements to house visitors with refugee families from 8 to 13 October in the Tindouf camp. They are looking for volunteers to help with everything from maintaining the website to promoting the event.

Photo: festivalsahara.com

Photo: festivalsahara.com

How much longer can this situation endure? With the increasing availability of the internet facilitating information sharing, and the development of online social and support networks, the story of the Saharwi is beginning to spread despite these long years of ignorance, and Morocco’s determination to suppress information. Those monitoring the situation in Mali also have a wary eye on Western Sahara, and some analysts probe the possible dynamics of relationships between the POLISARIO rebels, the MNLA, and sundry Islamist groups currently occupying large areas of northern Mali, especially as the 3 aid workers kidnapped from the Tindouf camp in October 2011 were in the hands of such groups.  As Saharwi youth become increasingly frustrated with the status quo, some feel the time is right for a change, even breaking the truce, if the UN can’t get its act together and force a referendum in the very near future. This makes them a choice target for recruitment by the rebel gangs who support their antics by trafficking people, drugs, contraband, and weapons across the Sahel region.

Human Rights Watch 2013 Report Morocco/Western Sahara

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Human rights conditions were decidedly mixed in Morocco, as a 2011 constitution containing strong human rights provisions did not translate into improved practices. While Moroccans exercised their right to protest in the streets, the police often dispersed them violently, and protest leaders and dissidents risked imprisonment after unfair trials, sometimes based on the many laws repressing speech that have yet to be revised in light of the new constitution.

In January 2012, for the first time, an Islamist became prime minister, after the Hizb al-Adalah wal-Tanmiya (Justiceand Development) party won a plurality of seats in legislative elections. Moustapha Ramid, a well-known human rights lawyer, became justice minister. On July 31, Ramid declared in a television interview that among Morocco’s 65,000 prisoners there were no “prisoners of opinion,” a statement contradicted by the incarceration of rapper al-Haqed and student Abdessamad Haydour for their peaceful speech.

Freedom of Assembly, Association, and Expression

Inspired by popular protests elsewhere in the region, Moroccans have since February 2011 held periodic marches and rallies to demand sweeping political reforms .The police tolerated many of these protests, spearheaded by the youthful, loosely organized February 20 Movement for Change, but on some occasions attacked and beat protesters severely.

Seddik Kebbouri, president of the Bouarfa section of the independent Moroccan Association for Human Rights, served eight months in prison following his conviction in an unfair trial for his alleged role in a May 2011 demonstration that ended in rock-throwing and property damage. A royal pardon freed Kebbouri and nine co-defendants on February 4, 2012. A Casablanca court on September 12 sentenced five protesters to between eight and ten months in prison on charges they assaulted police at a street protest on July 22, even though the court relied on confessions that the defendants claimed had been beaten out of them.

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Hundreds of suspected Islamist extremists arrested in the aftermath of the Casablanca bombings of May 2003 remain in prison. Many were convicted in unfair trials after being held in secret detention and subjected to mistreatment and sometimes torture. Since further terrorist attacks in 2007, police have arrested hundreds more suspected militants, many of whom were convicted and imprisoned, not for having committed acts of terrorism, but for belonging to a “terrorist network” or preparing to join the jihad in Iraq or elsewhere.

Police Conduct, Torture, and the Criminal Justice System

Moroccan courts continue to impose the death penalty, but Morocco has not executed anyone since the early 1990s.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez stated he was granted unimpeded access to prisons and prisoners. He noted the “political will” among authorities “to build up an institutional culture that prohibits and prevents torture and ill-treatment.” However he also stated he had received“credible reports of beatings [by police] (with fists and sticks), application of electric shocks, and cigarette burns.” Mendez concluded: “In practice, the safeguards against torture do not effectively operate because ‘there is no evidence’ torture has happened and so the confession or declaration remains on the record and no serious effort is made to investigate, prosecute, and punish perpetrators.”

Courts deprived defendants in political cases of the right to fair trials and in a number of cases ignored their requests for medical examinations following their allegations of torture, refused to summon exculpatory witnesses, and convicted defendants based on apparently coerced confessions.

Twenty-five Sahrawi civilians faced a trial before a Rabat military court for their alleged role in clashes that caused fatalities on both sides in and around El-Ayoun in November 2010 between security forces and Sahrawis. At this writing, the trial had yet to begin, even though 22 of the defendants had spent nearly 2 years in pretrial custody.

Prison conditions were reportedly harsh, due in large part to severe overcrowding, a problem aggravated by the frequent resort to pretrial detention by judges, as documented by recent reports on prison conditions. Conditions for Islamist prisoners at the high-security Sale 2 prison improved compared to the inhumane and highly restrictive conditions that they faced in 2011, ex-prisoners told Human Rights Watch.

The National Council of Human Rights, a state-funded body that reports to the king, issued a pioneering report in September on mental hospitals, criticizing the inadequacies of existing facilities. In November, the council issued a report on prison conditions that cited a pattern of beatings, abusive policies on punishment and transfers, and excessive use of preventive detention by judges.

In 2012, there were several reports of police abuse of sub-Saharan migrants, many of whom live in precarious conditions along the Mediterranean coast. For example, on August 24, police reportedly raided an abandoned house inhabited by migrants on the outskirts of Nador, destroying or confiscating property, and putting migrants on buses and dumping many of them at the Algerian border without formally verifying their status. Generally, Morocco has refrained from expelling migrants who have documents proving that they have applied for or received recognition as refugees from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Freedom of Association

The 2011 constitution protects for the first time the right to create an association. However, officials continued to arbitrarily impede the legalization of many associations, undermining their freedom to operate. Groups affected include some that defend the rights of Sahrawis, Amazighs (Berbers), sub-Saharan migrants, and the unemployed, as well as charitable, cultural, and educational associations whose leadership includes members of al-Adl wal-Ihsan (Justice and Spirituality), a well-entrenched, nationwide movement that advocates for an Islamicstate and questions the king’s spiritual authority. The government, which does not recognize Justice and Spirituality as a legal association, tolerated many of its activities, but prevented others. In Western Sahara, authorities withheld legal recognition for all local human rights organizations whose leadership supports independence for that territory, even associations that won administrative court rulings that they had wrongfully been denied recognition.

Women’s Rights

The new constitution guarantees equality for women, “while respecting the provisions of the Constitution, and the laws and permanent characteristics of the Kingdom.” Major reforms to the Family Code in 2004 raised the age of marriage from 15 to 18 and improved women’s rights in divorce and child custody. However, the new code preserved discriminatory provisions with regards to inheritance and the right of husbands to unilaterally divorce their wives.

On March 10, 16-year-old Amina Filali apparently took her own life after enduring beatings from her husband, according to her family. Filali’s parents, who live near Larache, northern Morocco, had filed a complaint in 2011 stating that their daughter’s future husband had raped her; later they petitioned the court successfully to allow the two to marry. The case focused attention on article 475 of the penal code, which provides a prison term for a person who “abducts or deceives” a minor, but prevents the prosecutor from charging him if he then marries the minor. That clause, say women’s rights activists, effectively allows rapists to escape prosecution.

Domestic Workers

Despite laws prohibiting the employment of children under the age of 15, thousands of children under that age—predominantly girls—are believed to work as domestic workers. According to the UN, nongovernmental organization, and government sources, the number of child domestic workers has declined in recent years, but girls as young as 8 years old continue to work in private homes for up to 12 hours a day for as little as US$11 per month. In some cases, employers beat and verbally abused the girls, denied them an education, and refused them adequate food. In 2012, an appeals court sentenced a woman to 10 years in prison for beating a 10-year-old domestic worker, leading to the child’s death.

Morocco’s labor law excludes domestic workers from its protections, including a minimum wage, limits to work hours, and a weekly rest day. In 2006, authorities presented a draft law to regulate domestic work and reinforce existing prohibitions on under-15 domestic workers. The draft had been modified but not adopted at this writing.

Freedom of Expression

Morocco’s independent print and online media investigate and criticize government officials and policies, but face prosecution and harassment when they cross certain lines. The press law includes prison terms for “maliciously” spreading “false information” likely to disturb the public order or for speech that is defamatory, offensive to members of the royal family; or that undermines “Islam, the institution of the monarchy, or territorial integrity,” that is, Morocco’s claim on Western Sahara.

Moroccan state television provides some room for investigative reporting but little for direct criticism of the government or dissent on key issues. In April, Rachid Nini, a popular columnist and editor of al-Masa’ daily, completed a one-year prison sentence on charges, based on his articles, of attempting to influence judicial decisions, showing contempt for judicial decisions, and falsely accusing public officials of crimes.

Morocco revoked the accreditation of Agence France-Presse journalist Omar Brouksy on October 5 because of an article in which he described a political party running candidates in a by-election that day as being close to the palace. In November, authorities announced that it would allow Al Jazeera television to re-open its bureau, two years after they closed it after criticizing its coverage of the Western Sahara conflict.

In May, a Casablanca court convicted and sentenced rap musician Mouad Belghouat (known as “al-Haqed”—the sullen one) to one year in prison for insulting the police in the lyrics of one of his songs. The conviction and sentence were upheld on appeal in July.

A Taza court in February sentenced Abdelsamad Haydour, 24, of Taza, to three years in prison for attacking the king by calling him a “dog,” “a murderer,” and “a dictator” in an online YouTube video; the penal code criminalizes “insults to the king.”

Key International Actors

In 2008, the European Union gave Morocco “advanced status,” placing it a notch above other members of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). Morocco is the biggest Middle Eastern beneficiary of EU aid after the Occupied Palestinian Territories, with €580 million (US$757 million) earmarked for 2011 to 2013. In its 2012 ENP report, the EU urged Morocco to protect freedom of expression by, among other things, adopting a new press code, and to “put into effect the principles contained in the new constitution, notably the adoption of organic laws … and formulate a strategic plan for reforming the justice sector with a view toward consolidating its independence.”

France is Morocco’s leading trading partner and source of public development aid and private investment. France increased its Overseas Development Assistance to €600 million ($783 million) for 2010 to 2012. France rarely publicly criticized Morocco’s human rights practices and openly supported its autonomy plan for Western Sahara. On March 9, then-Foreign Minister Alain Juppé hailed Morocco’s “exemplary” progress toward democratization and called it “a model” during the Arab Spring. On May 24, King Mohamed VI became the first head of state to be received by François Hollande, president of France, after his election as president.

The United States provided financial aid to Morocco, a close ally, including a five-year $697 million grant beginning in 2008 from the Millennium Challenge Corporation to reduce poverty and stimulate economic growth. On human rights, the US continued to publicly praise Morocco’s reform efforts. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a statement about Morocco at the first bilateral “strategic dialogue” on September 13, voiced no reservations on human rights.

The 2012 UN Security Council resolution renewing the mandate of the peacekeeping force for Western Sahara (MINURSO) did not enlarge the MINURSO mandate to include human rights monitoring, an enlargement that the Polisario supports and Morocco opposes. MINURSO is one of the only peacekeeping operations created since 1990 that has no human rights monitoring component. Resolution 2044 welcomed “the steps taken by Morocco to ensure unqualified and unimpeded access [to Western Sahara] to all Special Procedures of the United Nations Human Rights Council” visiting Morocco. In September, the UN special rapporteur on torture conducted a mission to Morocco and Western Sahara (see above).

hrw.org

Timbuktu Who’s Who

Mokhtar "Marlboro Man" Belmokhtar
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First Published: 12 July 2012. Updated: 8 February 2013

Jump to News Update Notes

MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad)

MNLA Leadership

The MNLA is a very recent organisation with a very old cause: the Tuareg have been fighting an insurgency against the central power in Mali since the late 1950s and openly fighting since 1963. This incarnation was created in September 2011 with the arrival of ex-soldiers from Libya after the fall of Gaddafi. They would like a separate state from Mali for the Tuareg people, who have lived in the region for centuries. They offer no explanation for their desire to settle down despite being a nomadic race, or for their decision to select part of only one country from the half a dozen where Tuareg originate.

Leaders

Bilal ag Cherif, is primary leader as General Secretary of the MNLA. He studied in Libya.

Mohamed ag Najim, emigrated to Libya after the big drought of 1973 He had a successful military career and ranked as Colonel and Guide to the Libyan army. Today he is the military leader and a driving force of MNLA.

Nina Wallet Intalou

Nina Wallet Intalou (Photo: El Pais / J. Naranjo)

Nina Wallet Intalou described as the « passionaria » of Malian Tuaregs. She is the only woman in the MNLA leadership. Intalou was elected mayor of Kidal in Northern Mali in 1997, but could never carry out her duties because the Islamists refused to recognise a woman as Mayor. She is close to Mohamed ag Najim and is opposed to Ansar Dine and Iyad ag Ghali because of his links to Al Qaeda (AQIM), insisting he can never be pardoned because of the harm he has done to their cause.

Mossa Ag Attaher

Mossa Ag Attaher

Other members include Magdi Ag Bohada, MNLA political bureau member in charge of North Africa relations; Abdallah Al-Taouss, Deputy Chief of Staff; and MNLA Communications Officer Mossa Ag Attaher , and the official representative for ex-pats, Human Rights and Humanitarianism, Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh.

Worth a mention is Colonel Habi Ag al Sallat [video], who is said to have fled Ansongo along with MNLA VP Mahamadou Djeri Maiga and a few others, after threats from MUJAO and was later reported to be in Niger’s capital, Niamey.  Via our friend Tommy Miles, some info on Moussa Ag Acharatoumane: the original MNA guy from October 2010, who was arrested in Timbuktu (along with Ag Fadil). He was evicted from MNLAmov.net around March 2012. Also, Hassan Ag Mehdi – generally known by his nickname “Jimmy-le-rebele”, who’s joined and left almost every group.

There are occasional press mentions of various MNLA spokesmen and other associates aligned with the movement, such as Acheick Ag Mohamed and Acherif Ag Intakwa on the Toumast Press website. The MNLA has denied claims that it owns heavy armaments from Libya  and is estimated to have 2-3,000 fighters – about the same as the Islamist groups combined.

Abdallah Al-Taouss, Deputy Chief of Staff, MNLA

Colonel Habi Ag al Sallat, Deputy Chief of Staff, MNLA

I originally used this image from a June 2012 youtube video, identifying the man on camera as Abdallah Al-Taouss. But then 27 November 2012, someone sent me a screengrab from an exclusive AlJazeera item which identifies the man, correctly, as Colonel Habi Ag al Sallat. I guess that is one way to boost the numbers.

Members Of The State of Azawad Transitional Council (TCSA)
(as of 15 January 2013)
President Mr. Bilal Ag Cherif
Vice-President Mr. Mahamadou Djeri Maiga
Defence and Military Relations Colonel Mohamed Ag Najim
Interior Security Mr. Sidi Mohamed Ag Saghid
Justice Mr. Ben Bella Assayid
Foreign Affairs Mr. Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh
Territorial Administration Mr. Alla Ag Elmehdi
Culture, Arts and Tourism Mr. Mahmoud Ag Aghaly
Communication Mr. Mossa Ag Attaher
Health Mr. Abdul karim Ag Matafa
Human Rights Mr. Moussa Ag Acharatoumane
Preaching and Islamic Orientation Mr. Mohamed Ag Moussa
Veterans and Martyrs’ Families Mr. Youssouf Ag Acheickh
Energy and Mines Mr. Ahmed Mohamed Ag Aguidy
Legal Affairs Mr. Mohamed Ag Habaye
Financial Mr. Altanata Ag Ebalagh
Women, Children and Family Mrs. Lalla Wallet Mohamed
Transport and Roads Mr. Ould Sidaghmar Ahwaïssine
Livestock and Farming Mr. Mohamed Ibrahim Ag Ghabdy
Environment Mr. Ag Baye Diknane
Youth and Sports Mr. Salah Mohamed Ahmed Abba
Telecommunications Colonel Assalat Ag Haby
Agriculture and Resources Fish Farms Mr. Seydou Abdoulaye Dicko
National Dress and Costumes Mr. Mohamed Ousmane Ag Mohamedoune
Domains and Public Benefits Colonel Hassan Ag Fagaga
Planning and Statistics Mr. Ambeïry Ag Rhissa
Water Mr. Mohamed Maiga Zeyni Aguissa
Trade Mr. Souleymane Akli Iknane Ag
Social Cohesion and National Reconciliation Mr. Mohamed Ag Intalla
Humanitarian Assistance and Refugees Ms. Nina Wallet Intalou
Economy Mr. Zeid Ag Kiri
Employment and Vocational Training Colonel Mohamed Ag Mohamed Assaleh Rhissa
CTEA Presidency Spokesperson Mr. Hamma Ag Sidahmad

Republican Movement for the Reconstruction of Azawad (MRRA)

Colonel El-Hadj Ag Gamou, who claimed to have deserted the Malian army to join the MNLA but retained his uniform, to “differentiate himself from the likes of ag Ghali”, announced the birth of this militant breakaway movement with 1,000 Songhai, Fula, Arab and Touareg members and 250 military vehicles on 13 May 2012. The goals were to combat Islamic armed groups in northern Mali and to demand political autonomy for Azawad, according to spokesperson Ishaq Ag Housseyni. Colonel Ag Gamou later sought refuge with his men in  Niger.

National Congress of Azawad

A separatist movement which claims to be aligned with the MNLA and led by Abu Bakr al-Ansari, a Touareg from the Kalnassar tribe. Abu Bakr al-Ansari is described in media reports as an analyst and journalist at Le Quotidien who specialises in the ongoing conflict in Mali. He tends to run interference, popping up in the media giving interviews that contradict statements from the MNLA.

Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

formerly the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC)

Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), with his fighters in Mali

AQIM was created in September 2006 after the dissolution of the Salafist Group for preaching and Combat (GSPC) which itself evolved out of the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, (GIA). They are thought to be very well armed and trained in the use of sophisticated weaponry.

Leaders

Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud (a.k.a. Abdelmalek Droukdel) born April 20, 1970. Wadoud earned a university degree in mathematics before joining the insurgency in 1996, and was a regional leader of the GSPC for several years before becoming the group’s commander in 2004.

Abou Zeid

Abdelhamid Abou Zeid

Jamal Akasha, aka Yahya Abu al-Hamam/ Yahia Djouadi/ Abu Ammar/Abu Al Hammam, an Algerian born 1978 in Reghaia, near Algiers, is current senior emir of AQIM, replacing the late Nabil Abu Alqama, another Algerian, senior leader and negotiator for hostage deals (real name Nabil Makhloufi). Leader of the Tarek Ibn Ziyad brigade Abdelhamid Abou Zeid reports to Yahya Abu al-Hamam.  Abou Zeid “The Russian”, real name Mohamed Ghedir, is an Algerian born 12 December 1965 in Touggourt who fought in the ranks of the GSPC, and the main emir in northern Mali.

al-Furqan katiba leader Mohamed Lamine Ould Hacen aka Abdel al Chinguetti

The al-Furqan batallion, a group of mostly Mauritanian and Malian fighters which operates in the region north of Timbuktu along the Mauritanian border, is led by a Mauritanian – Mohamed Lamine Ould Hacen aka Abdel al Chinguetti. Born in Nouakchott in 1981, Ould Hacen graduated in 2006 from ISERI, despite being jailed for over a year for his membership of a jihadist group. He resurfaced as an AQIM spokesman after being released from prison. This group is thought to be holding two of the French hostages abducted from Niger, Thierry Dol and Daniel Larribe.

Sahel Emirs Ould Hacen and ​​Abou Zeid have additional senior-level associates, such as Mauritanian Abu Anis Chinguetti, whose real name is Abderrahmane Tandaghi.

Abou Abdelkarim aka Le Targui (real name Hamada ag-Hama) leads the al-Ansar katiba based near Ain Khalil in the far north-east of Mali. Le Targui is responsible for the 2010 kidnapping and later killing of the elderly French aid worker Michel Germaneau, and for drug trafficking via Colombian cartels in Guinea-Bissau. This group is thought to be holding two of the French hostages abducted from Niger, Pierre Legrand and Marc Ferrer.

Oumar Hamaha, now Islamist group MUJAO  military chief

Oumar Amarha aka Omar Hamaha/Hamha or “Omar Redbeard”, a seasoned AQIM operative, previously involved in the 2008 kidnappings of Western envoys in Niger, and went on to become military commander of MUJAO  (or Ansar Dine, depending which stories you read)..

AQIM’s judicial commission head Abderrahmane Abou Ishak Essoufi (real name Necib Tayeb) is currently detained in Algeria.

Freelancers – Opportunists – Rent-a-Rebel, Inc.

Mokhtar "Marlboro Man" Belmokhtar

Mokhtar “Marlboro Man” Belmokhtar

News in December of his decision to split from AQIM – or being kicked out, depending on source – means a new section needed here just for Mokhtar Belmokhtar, aka Khaled Abou al-Abass, “Bellawar” or “Marlboro Man”, an Algerian born c1972  in picturesque Ghardaia, in the region of m’Zab. He is involved with trafficking of Nigerien migrants and drugs to Europe and, as a member of the GSPC, led the 2005 attack on an outpost in which Mauritanian soldiers suffered heavy losses. He is sometimes credited with pioneering the Sahel franchise of hostage-taking for profit. His on-off relationship with AQIM could be attributed a genuine conflict of interests, a lack of adherence to the Islamic faith or jihad on his part, or simply a ploy to keep people guessing.

December 2012 saw the announcement that Belmokhtar had created a new battalion “Signed in Blood” to complement his existing “Masked” battalion.  Enticing claims emerged in January 2013 that the new katiba includes sympathisers from Western nations, and a few news items have indeed hinted at the presence of Europeans and Russians, while the unit that raided In Amenas gas plant in Algeria included 2 Canadians.

Ansar Dine ‘Defenders of Faith’

Also transliterated Ançar DineAnçar Deen or Ansar al-Din

Ivorian Ahmed El Guedir (L), one of the Ansar Dine “Islamic police”, patrolling the streets of Gao, northern Mali, on July 16, 2012 — Photo by AFP / ISSOUF SANOGO

In the rebel-held areas, this group is the one being reported – and sometimes, misreported – as terrorising Malian people. They have destroyed Islamic sites in Timbuktu, and are rigorously enforcing Sharia law. The group’s members are mainly from Mali, Algeria and Nigeria, with reports of members from further afield arriving to join them, as well as a recruitment campaign said to be targeting local youth and children.

Ansar al-Din leader Iyad ag Ghaly

Iyad ag Ghaly aka Abu al-Fadl, a Malian of the Ifoghas tribe born in 1958 ,and  a “born-again Muslim” who went to Libya at the age of 20 to learn Arabic, and spent years in Ghaddafi’s army before returning to lead a failed rebellion in Mali. In 1991 he signed an agreement with the Malian army which sparked controversy within the MPLA and caused it to split. Ag Ghaly remained the leader of one of the four splinter groups, though he was rumoured to have ties with the Malian government and the Algerian military intelligence. In 2006, he was involved in the Tuareg uprising against the Malian Army. Despite this, in 2007 he was “rehabilitated” as an ambassador to Saudi Arabia, until unsavoury exploits got him kicked out.

In late 2011, ag Ghaly attempted to assume the leadership of the Tuareg Ifoghas tribal group Kel Adagh, but failed. Unable to take a leadership role with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), ag Ghaly announced the formation of the Islamist Ansar Dine.

Senda Ould Bouamama of Ansar Dine

Sanda Ould Bouamama (see also below: Ansar al Sharia)

Few other names or details of Ansar Dine members are being published, but mediators Cheick ag Wissa (ag Ghali’y right-hand man) and Kidal-based Algabass ag Intalla (now leading the break-away MIA) were interviewed during their trip to Bur­kina Faso for negotiations at the end of June, and AFP produced the photo below. Ag Intallah is said to be friendly with Qatar’s royal family, helping arrange hunting trips in the Sahara for them. There is often mention in news reports of a spokesman: Timbuktu-based Sanda  (Senda / Sindh) Ould Bouamama, once jailed as a threat to security in Mauritania, who talks to media agencies such as Associated Press and Reuters by telephone. Ag Ghaly’s representative in Algeria is named was Mohamed Ag Aharib, reported here as having joined the MIA in the January 2013 split.

The man being credited with overseeing Ansar Dine’s controversial and often brutal adherence to strict Sharia principles in Timbuktu, Mohamed Ag Mossa, was only identified after being named in the new MNLA council line-up (see above) and was almost immediately reported kidnapped, and shortly after claimed to have been arrested by the MNLA. (see 1 and 4 Feb 2013 update below) .

Chief Ansar Dine negotiator Cheick ag Wissa, right, and (former member) Alghabass ag Intalla. Photo: AFP

Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA)

A break-way group from Ansar Dine which announced on 25 January 2013 it had split from the religious extremist group, pledging to negotiate “a peaceful solution” and an inclusive political settlement to the crisis in Mali. The group indicated it might be willing to fight against its former comrades in arms, and claimed no links to the other two main groups, AQIM and MUJAO. According to the statement, the MIA is entirely made up of Malians, and headed by Alghabass Ag Intalla, an Ansar Dine leader with a lot of local influence in Kidal, who toyed with joining the MNLA at the start of their campaign. Ansar Din leader Iyad Ag Ghaly’s representative in Algeria, Mohamed Ag Aharib, is also reported to have joined the new group.

Movement for United Jihad in West Africa (Mujao)

MUJAO leader Hamada Ould Khaïrou

This group is frequently cited as having taken control of the entire north of Mali from the Tuareg separatists, but in fact the region is dotted with factions. MUJAO members originate from an African division of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb which includes Algerians, Mauritanians, Nigerians, Senegalese and Malians.

They are believed to have gathered 45m Euros from ransoms for kidnapped Westerners, and have returned only 3 of  the 7 Algerian diplomats taken hostage in Gao in April, later claiming to have killed vice-consul, Tahar Touati in September. Algeria refuted their claim for lack of evidence. A later video showed only three of the diplomatic hostages.

Hamada Ould Khairou is recognised as the creator and inspirational leader of the group. Mauritanian authorities claimed to have issued an international arrest warrant for him on 28 December 2011, but there is no record to match on the Interpol Red Notice Wanted List as yet.

Second in command is Mauritanian Abu Qumqum, born 1970 in Nouakchott.

Adnan Abu Walid Sahraoui

Other key members are Algerian Ahmed Al-Talmasi and Malian Sultan Ould Badi, who is defined by Malian authorities as a drug trafficker. A spokesman named Adnan Abu Walid Sahraoui responded in May 2012 to a question from AFP about the European aid workers taken hostage from Tindouf Saharawi camp in Algeria in October 2011, for whom ransom of 30 million Euro was demanded (and 15 million claimed to have been received after their 17 July 2012 release), and the remaining 4 of the 7 Algerian diplomats taken in Gao in April 2012, with a ransom demand of 15 million. Someone identified in the media as Abdoul Hicham was quoted when MUJAO claimed the abduction of Gilberto Rodriguez Leal in November 2012.

In December 2012, MUJAO formed a new batallion “Ansar al-Sunnah” composed mainly of local youth. Meanwhile the “Salah Eddin” group was founded by Sultan Ould Badi. This clique is the ethnic complement to Ansar al-Sunnah, with mainly Arab youth from Tilemsi tribal villages further north of the Gao stronghold. Members of these new groups could very well be the youth that we’ve heard about being recruited and trained over the past several months, and that raises the spectre of child soldiers in active combat.

Ansar al-Sharia

Formed December 2012 by radical followers of Islam in Gao, thought to be controlled by MUJAO’s military chief, Oumar Hamaha. Most leaders are said to belong to the Timbuktu region’s Berabiche tribe, with ties to Ansar Dine’s official spokesman Sanda Ould Bouamama. Ansar al-Sharia is believed to have spread to several countries in the wider region – Tunisia, Morocco, Libya – since it’s original founding in Yemen by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in April 2011. Its creed has been publicised to radical groups by a Mauritanian Salafi preacher, Abu Mondhar al-Chinguetti.

APF (Azawad Popular Front)

Colonel Hassane Ag Fagaga- APF, former MNLA

Colonel Hassane Ag Mehdi – APF, former MNLA

The brainchild of a former army officer and later MNLA security official in Gao, Colonel Hassane Ag Mehdi aka Jimmy le Rebel, the new APF was launched [fr] in early September 2012 from Burkina Faso. This is where several MNLA leaders sought refuge after being driven out of Mali by their former jihadist rebel partners and those MNLA members who left to swell the ranks of the Islamist factions that seized control of the north. The announcement first appeared on Facebook, and from there was picked up by the media. Ag Mehdi claims to have broad grass roots support in the region. He describes the APF as a non-separatist political and military organisation which respects human rights and is open to dialogue with all existing factions through mediation with the UN, ECOWAS and the African Union. The announcement was timed to coincide with a meeting between established groups that took place over two days in the North East of Mali, hosted by local tribal leaders.

FNLA (National Front for the liberation of Azawad)

Azawad Arabs in Mauritania for a conference 3 June 2012

Azawad Arabs in Mauritania for a conference 3 June 2012

Created on 8 April 2012 during the crisis in the north. Comprising Moors and Arabs, they claimed to be pacifist when they formed, and differentiated themselves from the MNLA because they wanted to retain Mali’s territorial integrity. The claim of non-violence was discredited by the presence of armed FNLA fighters in Timbuktu later that month. At the June 2012 Azawadi Arab Conference in N’Beiket Lahouach, Mauritania, their leader surprised delegates by announcing the FNLA’s intention to take up arms again and fight for an independent Azawad, at which point they left. We hear little from them, but  they are assumed to be enmeshed in the complex infrastructure of the illegal trafficking that represents Mali’s massive grey economy.

Leaders

  • Mohamed Lamine Ould Sidatt, an elected leader from the Timbuktu region, is General Secretary.
  • Housseine Khoulam, a lieutenant-colonel of the Malian army who defected, is military chief.

Arab Movement for the Liberation of Azawad

This group represents Arabs in northern Mali and is non-combatant, secular and separatist. Spokespersons include Mohamed Mouloud Ramadhan, Mohamed Lemine Ould Ahmed.

Updates:

NB: The lack of clarity and consistency in reporting from this region makes it difficult to verify news or track the allegiances of the various players and groups with any degree of accuracy.

8 February 2013: A suicide bomber, described as a Tuareg, died after detonating an explosive body belt while approaching a Malian military post in Gao on a motorcycle. One Malian soldier was lightly injured in the explosion. MUJAO is said to have claimed responsibility.

7 February 2013: MUJAO spokesman Abu Walid Sahroui reportedly sent a message to AFP claiming responsibility for 2 landmine explosion incidents (31 Jan and 6 Feb) that killed 6 people in Malian military vehicles on the road between Douentza and Gao, MUJAO’s former stronghold.

5 February 2013: The French Defense Minister claimed that there had been clashes between troops and “residual jihadists” in the vicinity of Gao the day before. Two teenagers armed with a pistol and two grenades were reportedly arrested in Gao market by Malian soldiers on the same day.

4 February 2013: In a phone call with RFI, MNLA External Affairs officer Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, claims responsibility for arresting MUJAO member Oumeini Ould Baba Ahmed and Mohamed Moussa Ag Mohamed, identifying him as Ansar Dine, and not acknowledging his role on the MNLA National Transitional Council. Assaleh indicated that MNLA would relay information extracted from the captives to France, which is keen to speak to Mohamed Moussa Ag Mohamed, who we can assume is wanted by the ICC in relation to war crimes committed by Ansar Dine – he is being touted as the “number 3″ in that group, with oversight of the strict Sharia that resulted in flogging, amputation, and lapidation punishments. Both were allegedly captured during clashes. This does not tie in well with Assaleh’s claim in the same interview that the MNLA have been non-combatant since April 2012.

There are several alternative possibilities in this situation: there may be two religious experts in Mali both called (Mohamed) Ag Moussa Mohamed; MNLA’s official website might have been hacked or infiltrated and a false list of members posted, including Moussa Ag Mohamed as officer for Preaching and Islamic Orientation;  MNLA might not have been responsible for one or both “arrests”; etc.

Also noteworthy: Ansar Dine claims to have arrested two people who were spying for “foreign interests” last week, and the source said that the search continues for a third suspect.

3 February 2013: Aerial bombardment of Kidal and Tessalit areas by French forces reported overnight. This follows reports of kidnappings and near-misses with French special forces near the Algeria border. It is possible that at least some of the foreign hostages are being held in this remote area, as the mountainous Ifoghas region is a known location for hideouts.

Unconfirmed report of executions of Arab citizens in Timbuktu by Malian army, including conflicting reports about the fate of Mohamed Lemine Ould Hamadi.

Voice of Russia published a “dialogue” with National Congress of Azawad President Abu Bakr al-Ansari, in which he avoided answering both questions, further cementing my opinion that he is a timewasting bit-player.

1 February 2013: Mety ag-Mohamed Rissa, former MPA spokesman in Bamako, member of the Commission for monitoring the National Pact,  gave a candid and interesting interview [fr] about his long time comrade and friend, Ansar Dine leader Iyad ag-Ghaly, to Rue89.

Newly-appointed MNLA head of Preaching and Islamic Orientation, Mohamed Moussa Ag Mohamed, reported kidnapped by armed men in In Khalil village near Mali’s border with Algeria.

31 January 2013: Transcript of a phone interview Andy Morgan was invited to hold with MIA leader Alghabass ag Intgalla, who clearly did not get the 30 Jan MNLA memo.

30 January 2013:  MNLA issued a statement (in French – they have not posted any news in Arabic since December) clarifying that only their men and French troops are in Kidal, and denying any association with MIA.

29 January 2013: More than 10 Salafi Muslims have been arrested in Mauritania over the past few days, on charges of seeking to join or support terrorist groups operating in Mali. One Mauritanian has been arrested in Senegal on similar charges. Several arrests in Mali reported previously.

Djimbé Senegal

26 January 2013: Unconfirmed reports via L’Observateur that around 50 armed militants were seen in the vicinity of Djimbé, Senegal near the border with Mali.

25 January 2013: Reports of large displacements of locals north towards Algeria in fear of Ganda Koy militia intimidating villagers in several locations, including Agachar & Zarho, Mali along the Niger river north west of Timbuktu. In Leré, a group of fighters with weapons and about 20 vehicles led by a former Malian army colonel reportedly announced they were quitting Ansar Dine to join MNLA.

24 January 2013: Unconfirmed report [ar] that someone in a vehicle carrying AQIM emir Abdelhamid Abou Zeid was injured by an airstrike by French military 50km north of Leré, Mali.

23 January 2013: Ahmadou Ag Abdalla, described as a leader of Ansar Dine who was active in the Goundam area of Mali was reportedly arrested in Bassiknou, Mauritania

21 January 2013: 7 students from the Islamic University in al-Ayoun, Mauritania were detained. 6 were later released and the remaining detainee, a former classmate newly-arrived from Mali, was sent to Nouakchott for interrogation on suspicion of promoting militant jihadism.

A fighter from Ansar Dine, Akili Ag Mami, surrendered to gendarmes in Fassala, Mauritania after being bombarded by French military jets.

A large contingent of fighters fleeing Mali, thought to include Hamada Ould Khairu, the leader of MUJAO, rumoured to have arrived at Tindouf refugee camp Algeria, in 10 4×4’s.

A new terrorist group, JAMA’ATU ANSARUL MUSLIMINA FI BILADIS-SUDAN (a.k.a JAMBS), thought  to be a breakaway faction of Boko Haram, reported as claiming responsibility for attack on Nigerian troops in Kogi State in order to warn Nigeria against joining Western powers in their “aim to demolish the Islamic empire of Mali.”

Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh20 January 2013: 2 MNLA colonels and their Human Rights liaison, Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh arrived unexpectedly in Niamey, Niger, from Burkina Faso where they were subjected to a barrage of questions from the media about their reaction to the arrival of French forces in Mali.

Abu al-Baraa Al-Jazairi

Abu al-Baraa Al-Jazairi

19 January 2013: After trekking north-east into Libya, and joining forces with armed militants from Egypt and Libya, the “Signed in Blood” battalion of Mokhtar Belmokhtar group took part in a raid on a BP-Statoil processing plant at In Amenas, Algeria taking many hostages, including foreign workers from Norway, France, USA, Great Britain, Romania, Colombia, Thailand, Philippines, Ireland, Japan and Germany. There were significant casualties, including 23 hostages  before the Algerian military regained control three days later. The armed attackers included fighters from Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. One of the escaped hostages remarked on the “perfect” English accents of some of his captors. Four leaders were said to be among the 32 militants who died in this operation, identified by Algerian news site el-Watan as Abu Al-Baraa Al-Jazairi (Algerian leader of the hostage-taking operation and former member of the GSPC) Abul Rahman al-Nigeri (Nigerien), Lamine Moucheneb alias Taher (Algerian), and Abdallahi Ould Hmeida (Mauritanian youth of 18 who joined AQIM in 2009).

18 January 2013: French fighter jets pursued armed rebels from Mali across the border into Mauritania where they destroyed all 5 vehicles in the convoy near Fassala. 5 rebels are said to have survived but left the scene in search of medical assistance for the injured.

16 January 2013: New video from Mokhtar Belmokhtar reported but  not released removed shortly after release (but still visible here), in which it is said he is clearly identifying with AQIM for the first time.

15 January 2012: New video of Ansar Dine in Konna, scene of the initial fighting with Malian army.

New statement and leadership changes to MNLA Council

12 January 2013: Following the United Nations Security Council December 2012 resolution stating that elections must take place before a possible military intervention in September 2013, and the 1 January 2013 response from Malian political and military leaders that they were not prepared to wait that long, fighting between Malian military and rebel forces in broke out central Mali a few days later. The situation rapidly escalated and France sent troops with air support to Mali on 11 January. There is no reliable information about the level of casualties for any of the parties. The conflict has already created thousands of Malian refugees and internally displaced, and continues to gather external support.

25 December 2012: New video released of 4 French hostages, all reported unharmed.

11 December 2012: Lead guitarist and vocalist Intidaw aka Abdallah Ag Lamida of the Tinariwen band of Tuareg-Berber musicians was briefly detained by Ansar Dine while on a visit to his home village in Mali. Ag Lamida stepped into the lead role after Ibrahim Ag Alhabib left to join the Azawad rebellion.

9 December 2012: Radical followers of Islam in Gao announced they had created their own Ansar al-Sharia group.

6 December 2012: MNLA Deputy Secretary General Mohamed Lamine Ould Ahmed resigns over prospect of bargaining away rights by announcing willingness to deal with interim government in Bamako.

5 December 2012: AQIM/Freelance terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar alias Khaled Abu Abbas announced the formation of a new battalion “Signed in Blood”.

4 December 2012: “Black Tuesday” MNLA met with Mali government in Burkina Faso and agreed to cease hostilities.

Hostage Alberto Rodriguez-Léal

Hostage Alberto Rodriguez-Léal

20 November 2012: the abduction of a Portuguese-born man with French nationality who lives in Chirac, Lozère region of the Languedoc in France, took place in Mali. 61 year-old Alberto Rodriguez-Léal was driving himself through the South of Mali near the borders with Mauritania and Senegal when he was abducted near Diéma. This kidnapping brought the total number of hostages in the region at the time to 13, of which 7 were French. A video of Mr Rodriquez-Léal and images taken from it were later circulated. MUJAO spokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and demanded the removal of French forces in Mali stationed near the Mauritania border. No updates or information have been published since the video was released at the end of November 2012.

16 November 2012: Ansar Dine reportedly ready to sever ties with MUJAO

Fulani fighters

Fulani fighters

13 November 2012: Ethnic Fulani members of MUJAO in Gao were reported to have left the group. Among these are probably some members of the Ganda Izo (Sons of the Land), a Fulani ethnic militia that was formed in 2008 – not to be confused with the longer-established Songhai ethnic group Ganda Koy (Masters of the Land). Ganda Izo was said to have agreed to a partnership deal for control of Douentza, but were later deemed by MUJAO to be “acting independently” and the deal was called off in September 2012.

22 October 2012: MNLA sources reported 9 Tuareg travellers were taken captive by the Malian army near Diabaly, scene of the September massacre of 16 Islamic preachers, most of them from Mauritania. 4 of the Tuareg were reported executed and the remaining 5 were unaccounted for. The next day, a report [ar] was posted of a Mauritanian trader arrested by the Malian army on suspicion of links to AQIM.
14 October 2012: a liaison between Al-Qaeda and AQIM,  45 year-old veteran militant Boualem Bekai aka Khaled El Migconfirmed killed in an ambush by Algerian forces at Azrou, 50km east of Tizi Ouzou in Algeria.

4 October 2012: Sahara Medias reported [ar]  Yahya Abu al-Hamam was appointed the new emir of AQIM. He replaced the former emir Nabil Abu Alqama, reported killed [ar] in a road accident near Douentza, Mali, on 9 September 2012*. The October news report says Abdelhamid Abou Zeid will report to al-Hamam.  Additional reports say Abou Zeid is now the main Sahel emir in northern Mali.

24 August 2012: Omar Hamaha (MUJAO chief) in a phone interview on Senegal radio denies reports of his death, explaining that he was away briefly visiting family and had not been anywhere near Niger.

17 August 2012: False report of MUJAO leader Omar Hamaha being killed in a skirmish near the border with Niger.

14 August 2012: Abou Ishak, head of the Legal Committee of AQIM, arrested  in Algeria.

Early August 2012: MUJAO leader Omar Hamaha appeared in a video uploaded April 2012, declaring willingness to expand “jihad” far beyond northern Mali under the right circumstances.

2 July 2012: Ansar Dine announced that it had planted land mines around the city of Gao. The already sporadic transport to and from Gao continued as before.

30 June 2012: Ansar Dine staged the destruction of some Sufi shrines in Timbuktu which had been freshly anointed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. The destruction of the tombs got more media coverage than most other events in Mali, and the International Criminal Court declared it a war crime.

29 June 2012: After intense fighting and many casualties, Ansar Dine declared control of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu after expelling MNLA. In return, MNLA claimed they still controlled the largely desert area representing the rest of of northern Mali.

28 June 2012: False report of Mokhtar Belmokhtar being killed.

22 June 2012: 100 Malian religious leaders announced their rejection of the Touareg Islamist group’s strategy at a June 18th-20th conference attended by Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghaly.

15 June 2012: Ansar Dine and MNLA representatives began peace talks with ECOWAS in Burkina Faso.

12 June 2012: More MNLA and Ansar Dine fighting near Timbuktu.

11 June 2012: African Union asked for UN approval to intervene in northern Mali.

8 June 2012:  Skirmishes in Kidal between MNLA and Ansar Dine over imposition of Islamic law.

26 May 2012: MNLA and Ansar Dine agreed to an alliance which quickly disintegrated from lack of popular support.

20 May 2012: Military coup rebels officially returned power to the civilian government without surrendering themselves or their weapons.

Notes:

*Najib Ben Cherif posted – apparently in error – on Twitter that Abdelhamid Abou Zeid also died in the same crash:

The alleged car crash (all too common in Mali) coincided with another incident, north of Bamako.

Western Sahara Under Mounting Pressure

Conflict is brewing in the Western Sahara. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS
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Heightened Security

“We’ve been building a lot of new walls lately,” says Polisario Front commander Ahmed Salem as he drives his 4 X 4 across Tindouf in Western Algeria. But the newly introduced security measures may not be enough to ensure the survival of the Western Sahrawis.

Salem Ahmed drives along the desert sand wall towards the entrance of Rabuni camp near Tindouf (about 700 km southeast of Moroccan capital Rabat). Rabuni is the nodal point for refugee camps in southern Algeria for the Sahrawis, as the local Western Sahara people are called.

Just a few yards from where an excavator that works day and night, we are waved in through a checkpoint manned by men in camouflage from the Polisario, which heads the Sahrawi independence movement. At only a few kilometres from the Mauritanian border, this sea of mud houses and corrugated iron roofs is “home” to over 200,000 individuals.

Western Sahara was the victim of a decolonisation process interrupted in 1976, when Spain – its former colonial power since the late 19th century- left that barren land in the hands of Morocco and Mauritania. After a ceasefire agreement in 1991, most of the territory which is greater than the size of Britain -including the entire Atlantic coastline – is under the control of Morocco. A small, largely uninhabited and economically useless desert portion remains under Polisario rule, strongly backed by Algeria.

This is where the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (RASD) declared its independence in 1976. Since then, the Polisario has won formal recognition for the RASD from 82 nations.

“We are totally dependent on international aid, especially from Spain. We cannot let a repeat incident, like the one that happened before, or we’ll die of hunger and thirst in the desert,” says Ahmed Salem. Spanish aid workers Ainhoa Fernandez, Enric Gonyalons and Italian Rosella Urru were abducted from Rabuni’s international camp on Oct. 22, last year.

Many suggest that the first and only kidnapping in the territory, under the Polisario Front’s control, could trigger a conflict that has remained frozen for 37 years.

The abduction was claimed by a hitherto unknown armed group, and through unusual channels. Ahmed Mohamed Ali, a worker at the centre who was handcuffed during the attack told IPS that the attackers “were not from the region and most likely of Touareg origin.” The Touareg are Berber people inhabiting the Saharan interior of North Africa.

Some observers fear that conflict is brewing in the Western Sahara. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Increasing Isolation

The decrease in the number of foreign visitors is evident after the kidnapping. Rabuni camp has a capacity for 200 visitors; usually now there are just half a dozen.

“Any attack on foreigners, whether it’s a kidnapping, a roadside bomb, or any kind of assault can lead, in the short term, to unpredictable consequences for the future of refugees. It is certainly the most vulnerable side of the Saharawi people,” says Andoni Berriotxoa, coordinator of a project to build water wells in Bir-Lehlu, administrative capital of the Sahrawi territories under Polisario control.

The newly introduced security measures may look draconian to many: night curfew for foreigners starting at seven; compulsory military escort for any journey by road, and a network of earth and sand walls in which the Algerian army also joins with watchtowers and radars.

The Moroccan media will soon broadcast that we are restricting visits for foreigners, but this is for their safety,” says Salem. This military engineer who graduated in Cuba adds that it is Morocco that has built the world’s longest military wall: a French-designed project, over 2,500 kilometres in length, crisscrossing Western Sahara.

“It’s true that the number of visitors has dropped dramatically in the last seven months,” Salem Sehir, a Polisario executive member and district governor tells IPS. “There’s a big fear over new attacks, but we cannot forget that the financial crisis in Spain is also behind the fewer numbers. The number of our kids visiting Spain in summer was cut by half. Spanish families simply cannot afford it any longer.”

Political Stalemate

Back in Rabuni, Jatri Aduh, president of the Sahrawi Parliament and the Polisario leader in negotiations with Morocco, speaks of a conflict “that neither side is able to win.” The senior official openly admits his disappointment over the inaction of the former colonial power and of the UN, compounded by the unconditional support that Morocco gets from France.

“As a full member of the African Union, the RASD is committed to the security in the region and we will not spare any effort to implement it,” says the high-ranking official.

Aduh cannot hide his concern over the growing instability in the region, which is the only shelter for his entire people. In the inhospitable Algerian desert and halfway between the borders of Mali, Mauritania and the Western Sahara territory, this cluster of mud and corrugated iron houses lies on a crossroads for drug trafficking, and for Al-Qaeda fighters and Touareg rebels from Azawad – the newly self-proclaimed state in northern Mali.

“The challenges for the near future are so massive that we have even extended our hand to Morocco to liaise on common security issues. Unfortunately, we are still waiting for a response to our initiative.”

Norwegian Council for Africa.

Western Sahara: a South Sudan Suggestion

Peacekeeper stationed with MINURSO in Western Sahara
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The New York Bar Association has issued a document recommending that a referendum be held in Western Sahara which follows the same lines as the South Sudan referendum on independence, making references to international law and claiming that such a right to independence is covered by its terms.

The document issued by the New York Bar Association is called The Legal Issues Involved in the Western Sahara Dispute*. The document recommends that the UNO supports a process identical to the one in which South Sudan voted for independence (the Machakos Protocol), which would provide the Saharawi people with the right to vote in favour of autonomy within the occupying power, Morocco, or else go for full independence.

The 107-page legal report drawn up by the New York Bar Association, which has sent a copy to the US Congress, states: “After six years of negotiations on a settlement policy conflict, the people of South Sudan won the right to a referendum with the option of independence. A similar approach for Western Sahara would be supported by international law”.

The report goes further, claiming that international law supports the claim to a right for independence made by the Frente Polisario, representing the occupied Sahawari people: “The people of Western Sahara has clearly the right to self determination under international law. International law requires that the Sahrawis have the opportunity to determine their political status and that determination must include the option of independence”.

It continues: “any plan that eliminates the option of independence of the exercise of self-determination is illegal under international law clearly defined,” while calling on the international community to avoid “imposing” the Saharawi measures contrary to that point.

pravda.ru

Also of interest:

UNDRIP is the permanent solution to Western Sahara

extract from a note by rebuilding failed states on FaceBook

The Arab spring revolution and its ‘domino effect’ in North Africa lend urgency in the region to the United Nations’ efforts to resolve the long-festering problem of the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara.   Since 1975, Morocco has asserted its sovereignty over Western Sahara, and for over 37 years, the indigenous peoples of Western Sahara have struggled for independence.

In 1991, the United Nations crafted a solution to the Western Saharan problem in the Minurso mandate. The Plan provided for a transitional period during which the Special Representative of the Secretary-General would have sole and exclusive responsibility over all matters relating to a referendum in which the people of Western Sahara would choose between independence and integration with Morocco. Furthermore, it is intended for the establishment of a long term comprehensive and a just resolution to the conflict with Morocco over its self-determination and full independence.

Full implementation of this mandate has been blocked in the Security Council by Morocco’s ally, France, thus depriving the indigenous peoples of Western Sahara of their basic human rights. Therefore, in order to achieve the lofty objectives of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is fundamentally necessary for the International community to come to a consensus on the question of Western Sahara and find a solution to this thirty seven year old stalemate. Western Sahara is recognized by the U.N and the ICJ as a territory which was inhabited by Indigenous people prior to the Spanish colonization; therefore it is not a terra nullius.  Then, it is necessary for the U.N to adhere the population of Western Sahara under the protection of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, so they too can enjoy the minimum human rights as prescribed by the universal declaration.

A POLISARIO demonstration for the independence...

A POLISARIO demonstration for the independence of Western Sahara, held in Madrid, November 11th 2006 (here: outside the Foreign Office). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The UDHR guarantees “the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. Yet, these basic human rights are denied to the indigenous people in the occupied territory of Western Sahara thanks to a succession of events, which involve Morocco’s political scheming in the region, and the influence of France in the Security Council.

While everything else has been tried to find a solution to the conflict to only reach a deadlock, it is imperative to add the population of Western Sahara to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, for the establishment of these rights.

There are three steps to this policy recommendation to prove why it is fundamental to adopt the principles of the UNDRIP in Western Sahara. First, it will be on the history of the territory. Then, it will discuss the argument of the ICJ concerning the status of Western Sahara and the illegal claim of Morocco over it; and thirdly it will find the appropriate definition from the many on indigenous people to be applied on the Sahrawi population, and will show which articles should be the basis to this argument.

When other people enjoy “the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” as mentioned in the Universal declaration of Human Rights, the said human rights are inexistent in the occupied territory of Western Sahara.

Morocco’s political scheming in the occupied territory and its strong hold on the media, which prevents the world from knowing about the suffering of the indigenous people of the last African colony, should be sanctioned. And the influence of its allies in the UN Security Council that tends to be problematic to the mechanism and the function of the Minurso mandate in the territory should be stopped.

Although Western Sahara is recognized by the U.N and the ICJ as a Non Res nullius territory which gives it a legal status; and recognizing the failure of the U.N mandate in implementing its fundamental goal for a referendum, which is intended for the establishment of a long term comprehensive and a just resolution to the conflict with Morocco over its self-determination and full independence, and which only ended in reaching a deadlock. Therefore, and in order to show a sign of good will attention, the U.N should include the population and the territory of Western Sahara under the protection of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, so they too can enjoy the minimum human rights as prescribed by the universal declaration. This solution should be acted upon, by the international community, as a rightful thing to do to show a sign of good will in finding a permanent resolution to the question of Western Sahara.