Algeria has accused arch-rival Morocco of killing three Algerians on a desert highway, as tensions escalate between the neighbors over the contested Western Sahara.
“Three Algerians were assassinated… in a barbaric strike on their trucks”, Algeria’s presidency said Wednesday, in a statement quoted by the APS state news agency.
It reported the truck drivers had been travelling between the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott northeast to the Algerian city of Ouargla.
Morocco has not officially commented on the accusations, but an informed source from the kingdom said “it has never targeted and will never target Algerian citizens, regardless of the circumstances and the provocations”.
“If Algeria wants war, Morocco doesn’t,” said the source, who requested anonymity.
The Western Sahara is 80 percent controlled by Morocco, which sees the former Spanish colony, rich in phosphates and adjacent to bountiful Atlantic fishing waters, as an integral part of its own territory.
But the Polisario in November declared the truce “null and void” after Moroccan forces broke up a blockade of a highway into Mauritania, that the independence movement said was built in violation of the ceasefire.
Algeria has long hosted and supported the Polisario Front, which seeks full independence there and has demanded a referendum as provided for in a 1991 ceasefire deal.
The Moroccan source said that since then, six Moroccan soldiers had been killed in “harassment” by Polisario militants.
– Situation ‘significantly deteriorated’ –
In August, Algeria broke off diplomatic ties with Morocco citing “hostile actions” — charges Rabat dismissed.
On Sunday, Algeria ordered state energy firm Sonatrach to halt gas exports to Spain through a pipeline that traverses Morocco due to tensions with Rabat.
The reported killings took place on Monday, but few details had emerged. The Algerian statement did not specify the location of the strike.
But Akram Kharief, editor of Algerian website Mena Defense, said that “the Algerian truckers were killed in Bir Lahlou”, along a 3,500-kilometre (2,200-mile) highway that passes through part of the Western Sahara controlled by the Polisario.
Mauritania has said the deaths did not take place on its territory.
The Moroccan source claimed that the area in question is “exclusively used” by Polisario military vehicles.
The Algerian statement did not say what weapons were used, but Morocco in September took delivery of Turkish-made Bayraktar combat drones, according to Far-Maroc, a private military news website.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that the situation in Western Sahara has “significantly deteriorated” over the past year.
On Friday, the UN Security Council called for renewed peace talks, in a resolution Algeria slammed as “fundamentally unbalanced”.
Former US president Donald Trump broke with long-held diplomatic norms in 2020 to recognize Morocco’s claim to the territory, as part of a quid pro quo for Rabat’s normalization of ties with Israel.
His successor Joe Biden’s administration has not yet confirmed or rescinded the decision.
It argues that by avoiding bilateral talks with the Polisario, Rabat was trying to portray the conflict as a “regional, artificial” one rather than one of “decolonization”.
Algiers has rejected a return to roundtable talks last held in 2019 with top officials from Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and the Polisario.