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Algeria blames Morocco for 'assassinating' three truck drivers near Western Sahara

Algiers warns the fatal attack 'will not go unpunished' as relations deteriorate between the two countries
A United Nations Mil Mi-8 helicopter lands on the Moroccan side of the border crossing between Morocco and Mauritania in Guerguerat, in Western Sahara, on 25 November 2020 (AFP)

Algeria has accused Morocco of killing three truck drivers near the disputed area of Western Sahara, as relations between the two countries continue to deteriorate.

The Algerian government said that the killing of the drivers, who had been travelling between the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, northeast to the Algerian city of Ouargla, would "not go unpunished".

"Three Algerians were assassinated... in a barbaric strike on their trucks," Algeria's presidency said, in a statement quoted by the APS state news agency.

"Several factors indicate that the Moroccan occupation forces in the Western Sahara carried out this cowardly assassination with a sophisticated weapon."

Morocco did not immediately comment on the accusations.

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.

Algeria has long hosted and supported the Polisario Front, which seeks full independence in Western Sahara and has demanded a referendum, as provided for in a 1991 ceasefire deal.

But in November the Polisario declared the truce "null and void" after Moroccan forces broke up a blockade of a highway into Mauritania, which the independence movement said was built in violation of the ceasefire.

In August, Algeria broke off diplomatic ties with Morocco, citing "hostile actions" - charges Rabat dismissed.

Situation 'significantly deteriorated'

The reported killings took place on Monday, but few details have emerged and there was no immediate comment from Algiers or Rabat. 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 3,500km 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.

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The Algerian statement did not say what weapons were used, but in September Morocco 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 recognise Morocco's claim to the territory, as part of a quid pro quo for Rabat's normalisation of ties with Israel. His successor Joe Biden has yet to confirm or rescind the decision.

Algiers has rejected a return to round-table talks, last held in 2019 with top officials from Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and the Polisario. It argues that Rabat, by avoiding bilateral talks with the Polisario, was trying to portray the conflict as a "regional, artificial" one, rather than one of "decolonisation".