Moroccan-Algerian tensions flare up after alleged border shooting

Mon 20 Oct 2014

Moroccan-Algerian tensions flare up after alleged border shooting
On Sunday, tensions flared up between neighbours Morocco and Algeria after Rabat accused an Algerian soldier of firing on Moroccan civilians across their joint border a day earlier, thereby seriously wounding one of them. Already on the evening of the incident, the Moroccan government released a statement reading: “[t]he Government of Morocco strongly protests this direct and unacceptable attack on the lives of Moroccan civilians by the Algerian army.” Algeria acknowledged that shots were fired, yet denied that someone was injured. The 1500 km long Moroccan-Algerian border has been closed since 1994 after Rabat imposed visa requirements on Algerians in the wake of a shooting attack in Marrakesh that killed two Spanish. Relations between the two North-African neighbours remain tense ever since.

Border incident and its aftermath

In a statement, Rabat said that on Saturday, an Algerian soldier opened fire on a dozen Moroccan civilians along the border near the northeastern city of Oujda. One of the targeted civilians was seriously wounded. Morocco immediately summoned the Algerian ambassador to Morocco to “vigorously protest” the “grave incident” and to demand a clarification.

On Sunday, the Algerian Foreign Ministry responded by calling Morocco’s allegations “false.” In a statement, Algiers acknowledged that Algerian border guards had fired “two warning shots in the air” after they had come under attack from “Moroccan smugglers who pelted them with stones.” The Foreign Ministry added that “[t]he border guards […] reacted professionally by firing two warning shots in the air which could in no way have caused anyone to be injured.” The Algerian government accused her Moroccan counterpart of manipulating the facts and having an irresponsible attitude that does not fit the value of good neighbourly relations.

Disagreement over the Western Sahara region

The most crucial issue that lies at the heart of the Moroccan-Algerian conflict, by some experts labelled “one of the world’s most forgotten conflicts,” is the disagreement over the Western Sahara region. Morocco considers this previous Spanish colony as its southern province, whereas Algeria - itself maintaining no territorial claim on the region – diplomatically, militarily, financially and morally supports the nationalist independence movement Front Polisario (Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro).
Front Polisario fought a guerrilla war with Morocco for years and continues to oppose the government in Rabat, with the aim of obtaining the chance to organise a United Nations (UN) referendum that would enable the Western Sahara Saharawi people to choose between autonomy, independence or integration with Morocco. Front Polisario stresses the Western Saharan people’s right to self-determination. Rabat refuses to allow the holding of a referendum in the Western Sahara and claims the region as a part of its sovereign territory, which was unjustly severed by Franco-Spanish colonialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

In 1994, the Moroccan-Algerian border was closed indefinitely after a terrorist attack in a hotel in Marrakesh that killed two Spaniards. According to Moroccan territories, the gunmen responsible for the attack had strong ties to neighbour Algeria. Recently, tensions have been building up between the two North-African neighbours. Last year, there was an attack on the Algerian embassy in the Moroccan city of Casablanca. Moreover, in early 2014 Rabat accused Algiers of deporting Syrian refugees to their joint borders – an allegation denied by the Algerian government. 

Regional obstacle

The Moroccan-Algerian dispute over the Western Sahara has become a defining feature of North Africa’s international politics and regional relations. The decades-long tensions have not only led to permanent frosty relations between Rabat and Algiers, but have similarly caused the utter failure of constructing a regional Maghreb trading bloc. The conflict also continues to hamper effective regional security cooperation against transnational terrorist groups in the region. 

Sources: Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya (1), (2), Reuters, Middle East Monitor, the Maghreb Center Journal, abc News, One World, European Forum Country Update Morocco, European Forum Country Update Algeria

Photo: Yutaka Nagata