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Morocco PM says Western Sahara wall at centre of dispute completed

RABAT (Reuters) - Morocco has finished building a sand barrier in a U.N.-monitored buffer zone in Western Sahara, Prime Minister Saad Eddine El Otmani told Reuters on Tuesday, after the Polisario Front independence movement withdrew from a ceasefire.

The Moroccan army entered the buffer zone on Friday to open a road linking Western Sahara with Mauritania which had been blocked by Polisario supporters and fighters, leading the group to quit the 29-year-old truce agreement.

Speaking in an interview with Reuters, El Otmani reiterated that Morocco was sticking to the ceasefire and said there had been only “skirmishes and sporadic fighting” in recent days as concerns grew that a long-frozen conflict could reignite.

The Algeria-backed Polisario says it has repeatedly bombarded Moroccan positions on the sand wall that Rabat built in the 1980s along much of the frontier running for hundreds of miles through the desert.

The United Nations mission “continues to receive reports of shots being fired during the night at various locations along the berm”, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Tuesday.

El Otmani said the wall had now been extended to the Mauritanian border “with the goal of securing once and for all civilian and commercial traffic in Guerguerat between Morocco and Mauritania”.

The Guerguerat crossing is in a demilitarised buffer zone under U.N. observation set up as part of the 1991 ceasefire agreement.

Morocco described the blocking of the road by Polisario supporters, backed by armed fighters, as a breach of the ceasefire. The Polisario said the Moroccan army’s entry into the buffer zone had fatally undermined the ceasefire.

El Otmani said the Moroccan army had orders to respond to attacks. “Up to now, there is nothing to worry about along the security wall and in the Moroccan Sahara in general,” he said.

The Polisario front seeks Western Sahara’s independence from Morocco, which has held the vast desert region since Spain quit in 1975 and regards it as an integral part of its own land.

Rabat has said the most it can offer as a political solution to the dispute is autonomy. The Polisario and its ally Algeria reject this and say they want a referendum, with independence for Western Sahara as one of the options.

Reporting by Ahmed Eljechtimi in Rabat; Editing by Giles Elgood

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