AKHSHASH, Western Sahara (AP) – Hundreds of troops paraded in the desert Friday with tanks, artillery guns, and automatic rifles to step up their call for independence for Western Sahara.
The show of force by the Polisario Front commemorated the 33rd anniversary of the declaration of the Saharawi Republic by the Polisario, a rebel movement that rejects Morocco’s annexation of the territory.
“Let the world remember we are always willing to fight to get the occupants out of our land,” political officer Najim Bani said in a speech to about 3,000 fighters and ethnic Saharawis in Akhshash, a military outpost near Tifariti, the main Saharawi camp in northeast Western Sahara.
Many onlookers were nomads who had trekked from tents scattered across the wind-swept desert to applaud their military.
Bashir Mustapha Saeed, the deputy leader of the exiled Saharawi government, based in neighboring Algeria, said the Polisario Front had 12,000 to 18,000 regular troops and could mobilize many more reservists if needed.
“Every Bedouin is a fighter,” he told The Associated Press after handing diplomas to a unit of 500 cadets who had completed a year of training.
The Polisario and Morocco ended their 16-year war under a U.N.-brokered cease-fire in 1991. Negotiations to end the conflict have dragged on since then. Both sides say they are optimistic that Christopher Ross, the new United Nations envoy to the region, will restart peace talks and broker a peace deal. During a trip to the region this week, Ross said he would work to have the U.N. to deliver a self-determination plan for Western Sahara. “The youth are burning to fight, but that’s not an option,” Saeed said. “We sincerely want and need peace. But the current truce can’t go on for ever.” He said the Polisario is now focused on channeling refugees’ frustration by boosting sports and cultural activities. Events this week for the anniversary included a marathon with about 450 racers, mostly Westerners; a seminar on reconstruction; and concerts and plays. What the Polisario calls “liberated territories” represent about one-third of Western Sahara, a land slightly larger than Great Britain (or Colorado) divided by a vast barrier of concrete bunkers, barbed wire, and 5 million land mines that Moroccans set up to protect zones where they mine for phosphates and other minerals.
The U.N. truce envisioned a referendum on the territory’s future, but Morocco has backtracked on the vote because it wants to offer Saharawis autonomy instead.
Neither side agrees on voting lists for the referendum, with Morocco demanding to include the estimated 100,000 settlers it brought to Western Sahara, while Polisario wants those who cast ballots limited to the ethnic Saharawis living under Moroccan control and the estimated 170,000 refugees in camps on the border with Algeria.