West Sahara takes up very little space on the world map. Shut in by much bigger neighbors, Mauritania, Algeria and Morocco, its Sahrawi population numbers roughly 260,000, most of them nomads; its area is 250,000 sq. kilometers or 97,000 sq. miles.
But West Sahara has the good or bad luck to be strategically located on the African coast of the Atlantic Ocean, to be rich in phosphates and also in unexplored oil reserves including offshore deposits.
This Algerian president Abdelaziz Boutefliqa is preparing to resuscitate a dormant war against Morocco over this scrap of territory for his own particular reasons.
1. The Algerian president feels he is losing important political points at home by standing by and letting Morocco and its king Muhammed VI retain their hold on West Sahara. Morocco seized the territory when colonial Spain pulled out in 1975 and Western Sahara was partitioned with Mauritania. The separatist Polisario Front fought a guerrilla war until the UN intervened in 1991. International efforts to break the deadlock have failed.
2. Through revived support of the West Saharan Polisario Front, Algeria could end up with a valuable land corridor to the Atlantic.
A recent announcement by Mohamed Abdelaziz, secretary general of the Polisario Front that represents the indigenous Sahrawi people, suggested attacks may resume for the first time since the UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991.
“The Sahrawi people cannot remain indefinitely with their arms folded,” he is quoted as say by the Algerian press agency in an address at the 32nd anniversary ceremony of the founding of Polisario. “I am making a pressing appeal to the Moroccan government to follow the voice of wisdom and conform to international law.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that this statement was delivered shortly after Boutefliqa ordered his army chiefs to arm and retrain the fighting men of Polisario at their main base at Tindouf on the Algerian border with Western Sahara and Mauritania. (See map with this article)
The Algerians propose to build rapid raider units from the several thousand Polisario combatants and equip them with fast, new vehicles and advanced weapons systems, including night vision gear.
Fence-mending with former Algerian Jewish communities
US president George W. Bush discussed Algeria’s plans with the Moroccan king in their Washington talks in early April. The Americans then made quiet appeals to Boutefliqa to think again about his war plans and go back to negotiations with Morocco on the future of Western Sahara – to no avail. The Algerian ruler replied that he had tried talking to the Moroccan King and nothing had come of their meetings.
So heated is the West Saharan issue that it forced the indefinite postponement of the Arab Maghreb Union’ summit of Libyan, Tunisian, Mauritanian, Algerian and Moroccan leaders that was due to open in Tripoli on May 27 after a wait of 16 years. Rabat and Algiers blamed each other for the collapse.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, the Algerian ruler is planning a far-reaching diplomatic and information campaign to accompany the Polisario Front’s military initiative. He is banking on the West Saharan enterprise placing Algeria on equal terms as Morocco as a strategic force to be considered in Washington. To prepare the ground, Boutefliqa is going about building connections with former Algerian Jewish communities in Europe and the United States. He has taken a leaf out of the incumbent Moroccan monarch’s father Mohammed V, who nurtured ties with ex-Moroccan Jewish communities preparatory to building a strong relationship with Washington.
Sunday, May 22, a group of 130 Algerian Jewish community leaders in France arrived in Algiers as invited guests of the president. Their leader was Andrei Sharvit, son of the former Chief Rabbi of Algeria. Boutefliqa and Algerian ministers received the visitors and gave them a number of promises.
- Algiers would enter into negotiations for damages to the Algerian Jews expelled from the country in 1962 without their possessions.
- Pilgrimages would be allowed to the grave of the 14th century Algerian sage Rabbi Ephraim Al-Nekave at Tlencem on the Algerian-Moroccan border,
- With the restoration of ties between Algiers and its former Jewish community, the Algerian president would seriously consider introducing charter flights for commuters between Tel Aviv and the Algerian capital. Some 200,000 former Algerian Jews now live in Israel and have never been allowed to revisit their old homes.