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Following the kidnap of three humanitarian workers from Sahrawi refugee camps on the southern Algerian border, Konstantina Isidoros is sceptical about Morocco’s narrative about who is behind the attack.

Following Pambazuka News’ recent special Issue feature on the Western Sahara, a fresh political storm has broken out over the Western Sahara conflict, with the kidnapping of three humanitarian aid workers from the Sahrawi refugee camps on the southern Algerian desert border near Tindouf, during the night of last Saturday 22 October 2011. This is the first time hostage-taking has occurred anywhere near the Sahrawi refugee camps. (See: ’Three European aid workers kidnapped in Algeria’and ’European aid workers kidnapped in Algeria’

Rossella Urru from the Italian NGO International Committee for the Development of Peoples (CISP), Ainhoa Fernandez de Rincan from the Spanish Asociación de Amigos del Pueblo Saharaui de Extremadura and Enric Gonyalons from the Spanish NGO Mundobat were kidnapped and one of their Sahrawi guides injured in Rabuni, one of the refugee camps which serves as the main Protocol centre for receiving and housing foreign visitors.

Morocco’s diplomatic and propaganda machine has revved into action again, whipping up its favourite allegations of links between the Polisario Front (the Sahrawi nomad’s Liberation Movement and UN-recognised legitimate political representative of the Sahrawi people) and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM).

Since Saturday, Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Trinidad Jimenez has appeared in Rabat, enabling Morocco’s sycophantics to trigger an exchange of speeches of mutual cooperation between the two governments, and allow Morocco’s propaganda machine to influence mainstream media to focus on Morocco’s favourite allegations against the Polisario Front.

Yet a large proportion of Spanish civil society remain empathetic to the plight of the Sahrawi and make up the majority of visitors to the refugee camps, particularly in the form of regional Spanish aid groups, family host-exchange programmes and medical teams. The historical context is that Spain was the colonial power in Western Sahara and did little to stop Morocco breaking the tenets of international law and defying the legal opinion of the International Court of Justice to invade Western Sahara as Spain withdrew in 1975.

Pambazuka readers can hear two alternative angles to Morocco’s preferred story, through the voice of a Sahrawi writer who has written this article from Rabuni, where the three aid workers were taken hostage on Saturday night. Firstly, we hear from Malainin Lakhal a different line of reasoning that unlocks the possibility of Morocco’s hidden hand as an orchestrated attempt to add further political pressure onto Algeria, discredit the Polisario Front, frighten the Sahrawi’s world-wide humanitarian campaigners and continue to embed the idea that the Polisario Front cannot control its own territory. This latter point is of damaging significance to the Polisario Front’s goal of securing the United Nations-led self-determination process to provide its Sahrawi population the right to vote for and choose Independence from Morocco’s illegal invasion and occupation of Western Sahara – Morocco’s vicious thesis here is to portray the Sahrawi as unable to run their own country. A range of similar questioning is also often discussed amongst the analytical circles of Western Sahara observers and academics. For instance Anthony Pazzanita’s 1994 [PDF"> and updated 2011 articles that explore the various PR techniques that Morocco uses to penetrate its audiences, and Carlos Ruiz Miguel’s article [Spanish"> examining ‘Morocco’s strategy’ of using terrorism to devise ‘a thousand and one operations’ to introduce this variable in the conflict.

Finally, we hear from Sabrina Tucci, a female visitor to the Sahrawi refugee camps working for the UK-based Sandblast charity. Sabrina shares an insight into the hospitality and security given to visitors to the camps, including the paradoxically tight controls on our movements in the camps to ensure our safety in a region that is politically tense from Morocco’s illegal invasion of the Western Sahara. Sabrina voices many of our thoughts, that we remain steadfastly assured that the Polisario Front and the Sahrawi people have every reason to ensure our safety as they lobby the United Nations to ensure that their fundamental human right to self-determination is fulfilled, in this ‘last colony’ of Africa.

As Malainin has written in his article, if any Sahrawi individuals were involved in Saturday’s kidnapping, then these are rare and ‘weak’ individuals, somehow persuaded by the kidnappers – it well known that Morocco uses another tactic of financial and material inducements to incite Sahrawi defections. Sabrina’s story shows how resolutely the majority of foreign visitors will continue to entrust their safety in the hands of the Polisario Front and the Sahrawi people. I have previously written an article for Jacob Mundy’s 2010 ACAS Bulletin ‘US militarization of the Sahara-Sahel’ [PDF} setting out why the Polisario Front has little to benefit from connections with ‘al-Qaeda’, contrary to Morocco’s imaginary notions.


* Konstantina Isidoros is a PhD researcher at the University of Oxford.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.