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Country Reports
Western Sahara, Landmine Monitor Report 2003

Western Sahara

The sovereignty of the Western Sahara remains the subject of a dispute between the government of Morocco and the Polisario Front (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguía el Hamra and Río de Oro). The Polisario’s Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) is not universally recognized and has no official representation in the UN. Polisario representatives continue to state that the Saharawi government would join the Mine Ban Treaty, if eligible to do so, but at the same time, they speak of a possible need for antipersonnel mines.[1]

Polisario is not known to produce or export mines, but instead claims to have acquired mines by lifting them from the Moroccan defensive walls (berms). In June 2002, Polisario told Landmine Monitor that its forces have in the past removed antipersonnel and antivehicle mines from Moroccan minefields and replanted them to hinder Royal Moroccan Army troop movements.[2] Polisario has said that it has no stockpile of mines. It keeps 1,606 disarmed antipersonnel mines on display in the Saharwi Liberation Army Military Museum, which is open for visitors.[3]

Both Polisario and Morocco used mines extensively in the past. Polisario and Moroccan forces fought intermittently from 1975 to 1991, when a cease-fire went into effect and the UN peacekeeping force, UN Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), was deployed to the region. In June 2002, Polisario claimed that it had not laid, maintained or refurbished “any kind of mines” since “a cease-fire went into effect,” in reference to the 1991 cease-fire.[4] In January 2002, Polisario claimed that Royal Moroccan Army troops deployed in Western Sahara “refurbish and upgrade their minefields on a daily basis.”[5]

Landmine Problem and Mine Action

Western Sahara is affected by mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) as a result of years of conflict.[6] No in-depth landmine impact survey has been conducted. The 1991 cease-fire resulted in a territory that is divided between the Polisario and Morocco by defensive walls built by Morocco, known as berms (earthen walls of about three meters in height), which Morocco has fortified with antipersonnel and antivehicle mines. Despite the landmine problem, approximately 10,000 Saharawi nomads live in mine-affected areas on both sides of the Moroccan berms.[7]

Under bilateral military agreements signed by Polisario and Morocco in early 1999, both parties have committed to cooperate with MINURSO in the exchange of mine-related information, marking of mined areas, and clearance and destruction of landmines and UXO in the presence of MINURSO observers. In June 2002, Polisario stated that it has issued clear instructions to cooperate with MINURSO and provide any available information, assistance in marking and destruction of mines and UXO. It also indicated that it provided MINURSO with all maps and necessary information in 1991.[8]

The UN reported that between April 2002 and January 2003, the Royal Moroccan Army carried out 36 disposal operations in the Western Sahara and the Polisario Front carried out nine such operations.[9] In May 2003, the UN reported that MINURSO had monitored another 16 disposal operations carried out by the Royal Moroccan Army in Western Sahara.[10]

In 2003, the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining provided MINURSO with installation support, training, software maintenance, upgrades and general support for the Information Management System for Mine Action (IMSMA). IMSMA will enable MINURSO to consolidate the data on mines and UXO that it has collected over the years for use in planning any mine action in the area.[11]

Landmine Casualties and Survivor Assistance

In 2002, there were at least four new mine casualties in Western Sahara. Polisario provided Landmine Monitor with a list of seven mine incidents from June 2001 to April 2002. Five involved antipersonnel mines, killing one person in 2001, and injuring one person and killing eight camels in 2002. Two involved antivehicle mines, injuring two people in 2001, and killing one person and injuring at least two others in 2002. The incidents took place in Smara (two), Farsia (three), Oum Draiga, and Mehairis.[12] In February 2003, the Polisario reported a mine incident, which resulted in the death of a civilian in the area of Mijek (southern sector).[13]

The Sahara Section of the Forum for Truth and Justice, a Moroccan organization, claims there have been a number of landmine casualties in the Moroccan-controlled areas, particularly among nomads in the southern part of Western Sahara.[14] MINURSO recorded 39 mine incidents from 1992-2000.[15]

Access to emergency services, especially in remote areas, is limited to military medical facilities. No NGO is actively working with landmine survivors in the refugee camps or in Western Sahara.[16]

In January 2002, a new prosthetic/orthotic workshop was opened at the Ben Aknoun center is Algiers. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Algerian Ministry of Health, the Algerian Red Cross, and Polisario have signed a cooperation agreement to assist Sahrawi ex-combatants and victims of violence in Algeria at the workshop. The ICRC identified 182 amputees urgently needing prostheses; the majority were Polisario mine survivors. In 2002, the workshop fitted 58 Sahrawi amputees with prostheses. The ICRC also provided training for prosthetic technicians at the workshop. In July 2002, an ICRC prosthetic specialist visited the Sahrawi refugee camps to monitor the progress of amputees assisted in Algiers.[17]

[1] Interview with Mohamed Sidati, Minister for Europe for the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, Oslo, 20 March 2002.
[2] Polisario Response to Landmine Monitor, 27 June 2002.
[3] Ibid. There are five types of mines in the museum, from Brazil, France, Italy and the United States.
[4] Polisario Response to Landmine Monitor, 27 June 2002.
[5] Telephone interview with Emhamed Khadad, Polisario Coordinator to MINURSO, 23 January 2002.
[6] For a more detailed description of the landmine problem, see Landmine Monitor Report 1999, pp. 921-924.
[7] Interview with Major M. Morrow, Mine Information Officer, MINURSO, Laayoune, 7 January 2001.
[8] Polisario Response to Landmine Monitor, 27 June 2002.
[9] UN Secretary-General, “Report of the Secretary-General on the situation concerning Western Sahara,” S/2003/59, 16 January 2003, p. 3.
[10] UN Secretary-General, “Report of the Secretary-General on the situation concerning Western Sahara,” S/2003/565, 23 May 2003, pp. 2-3.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Polisario Response to Landmine Monitor, 27 June 2002.
[13] “Report of the Secretary-General,” 23 May 2003, p. 2.
[14] Interview with Brahim Noumria, Forum Verité et Justice- Section Sahara, Geneva, 8 April 2002.
[15] See Landmine Monitor Report 2001, p. 1,063.
[16] See Landmine Monitor Report 2002, p. 860.
[17] ICRC, “Annual Report 2002,” Geneva, June 2003, p. 332.