1. The present report is submitted pursuant to Security Council resolution 2285 (2016), by which the Council extended the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) until 30 April 2017 and requested me to provide a report to it on the situation in Western Sahara before the end of the mandate period. It covers developments since the last report dated 19 April 2016 (S/2016/355) and describes the situation on the ground, the status and progress of the political negotiations on Western Sahara, the implementation of resolution 2285 (2016) and the existing challenges to the Mission’s operations and steps taken to address them.
II. Recent developments
2. On 14 August 2016, Morocco began clearing an area inside the buffer strip below Guerguerat, in the south of the Territory, and paving a desert track linking its position at the berm and the Mauritanian border post 3.8 kilometres to the south. MINURSO received no advance notification of the activity. On 18 August, Morocco’s coordinator with MINURSO sent a letter to the Special Representative for Western Sahara and Head of Mission confirming that the clearance activities under way in the Guerguerat area had started on 14 August and were being conducted by the Royal Moroccan Gendarmerie and customs officers, without the intervention of Royal Moroccan Army personnel.
3. On 15 August 2016, Frente Polisario deployed armed personnel to a position immediately beyond the southernmost reach of the road construction in order to stop the Moroccan works from proceeding. Those personnel were replaced on 29 August by armed elements from what the Frente Polisario has described as its “National Gendarmerie”, and a fully armed protection rear guard was positioned behind them in the buffer strip. On 16 August, MINURSO started to conduct regular ground patrols and aerial reconnaissance over Guerguerat. On 28 August, the Mission deployed a static team of military observers between the Moroccan and Frente Polisario positions along the road during daylight hours and conveyed to the parties its readiness to maintain a night presence, if requested, and to set up a team site, if required.
4. Frente Polisario insists that the presence of its armed elements in and near Guerguerat was established in self-defence against Morocco’s attempt to change the status quo by paving the desert track and has argued repeatedly that the potentially explosive situation requires a solution beyond the “mere recording of violations” of military agreement No. 1. Frente Polisario further maintains that Morocco’s activities in the buffer strip constitute a violation of military agreement No. 1, which, inter alia, prohibits the entry of military personnel or equipment by ground or air and the firing of weapons in or over the area, and of the 1991 ceasefire. The core of its argument is that, according to Moroccan law, the Royal Gendarmerie is an integral part of the Royal Moroccan Army and has military status. Frente Polisario also argues that, when the ceasefire came into effect in 1991, there was neither an opening in the berm nor civilian traffic between the berm and the Mauritanian border in Guerguerat, and that the current traffic therefore violates the status of the Territory and of the ceasefire, since it changes the status quo of the buffer strip.
5. In its communications with MINURSO and the Secretariat, Morocco has strongly objected to the accusations that it has violated military agreement No. 1, which does not prohibit civilian activities. It insists that its clearing and paving actions were an exclusively civilian operation undertaken by a civilian contractor and its Royal Gendarmerie and customs services to counter illicit activities and facilitate road transport between Morocco and Mauritania and beyond and that no Royal Moroccan Army personnel had crossed the berm. Morocco also insists that the presence of Frente Polisario inside the buffer strip, the hoisting of flags of the “Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic”, the erection of what it terms to be prohibited structures and the impediments to the transit of civilian vehicles are violations of military agreement No. 1 and an unacceptable challenge to the authority of the United Nations and MINURSO. It has repeatedly informed MINURSO and the Secretariat that it cannot be expected to refrain from reacting to the situation indefinitely.
6. On 25 August 2016, MINURSO wrote to both parties, urging them to refrain from conducting any activity inside the buffer strip. On 28 August, my predecessor released a statement calling on both parties to suspend any action that altered the status quo and appealing to them to withdraw all armed elements to prevent any further escalation. He also called on the parties to permit MINURSO to pursue discussions with them to reach a resolution, stressing the need to adhere to their obligations under the ceasefire agreement and to respect its letter and spirit.