UN Beefs up Security in W. Sahara amid Threats against Dakar Rally
The UN mission in the Western Sahara has tightened security in the wake of threats by the separatist Polisario Front to launch attacks if the Paris-Dakar rally goes ahead there this weekend, an official said.
France, meanwhile, said Friday it was paying "great attention" to the threats, and was discussing the problem with organizers of the race.
Claude Bize, military commander of the MINURSO, the UN mission in the Western Sahara, a disputed territory annexed by Morocco in 1975, said Friday patrols had been reinforced in areas along the rally route.
"We will also watch that neither Morocco nor the Polisario Front has a military presence in the 35 kilometer (23 mile) security zone," he said, adding that the UN's job was to oversee a 10-year-old ceasefire between Morocco and the separatist movement.
"I will verify on the ground, with observers and with all means at my disposition that the accord is respected," Bize said.
The Polisario Front, seeking independence for the Western Sahara, has issued numerous threats to break the ceasefire if the race goes ahead through the disputed territory on Sunday.
"We will make use of weapons to defend our aim of self-determination," movement's leader declared on Thursday.
"We will take up arms again on all fronts against the Moroccan occupation forces. The theater of military operations will be total ... you will agree it will thus be difficult to distinguish between what is in the rally and what is not," Mohamed Abdelaziz warned in an interview with the Algerian newspaper El Watan.
A spokesman for the French foreign ministry, Bernard Valero, said France was following the affair "with great attention."
"We are in contact with the rally's organizers and we have brought to their attention the political and military issues in the region," Valero said.
Competitors in the 23rd Paris-Dakar motor car and motorcycle rally, one of the highlights of the motor sports calendar, left Paris on January 1 and were scheduled to arrive in the Senegalese capital Dakar by January 21, via Spain, Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania and Mali.
On Wednesday, some 40 Polisario supporters held up the start of the rally stage leaving Algiers by sitting in front of the cars and distributing protest pamphlets.
The competitors were scheduled to cross the "frontier" during the 489-kilometer (313-mile) seventh stage, a desert route from Gulimine to Smara.
In Rabat, the Moroccan government has maintained a calm front while receiving competitors.
But the Moroccan foreign ministry said last month it would prevent any threat to the security and stability of the area.
The Polisario leader said the rally organizers had assumed a grave responsibility in ignoring UN resolutions and causing a ceasefire violation.
"Their act amounts to de facto support for the colonization of Morocco," he said: "The organizers should not have involved innocent civilians in this criminal adventure who, I am sure, are interested only in sport and the magic of the desert."
Last year, the rally was forced to divert following what organizers called terrorist threats.
Western Sahara was annexed by Morocco in 1975. Around 300,000 people live in the 266,000 square kilometer desert territory.
Fighting raged between Moroccan forces and the Polisario Front, which has Algerian backing, from 1975 until 1991.
The United Nations has been seeking to bring about a UN-organized referendum -- constantly postponed since January 1992 -- on the future of the territory, but the efforts have been thwarted by constant rows over electoral lists -- EL AYOUN, Western Sahara (AFP)
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