Killing of three Algerians inflames tensions with Morocco

Relations between north African neighbours deteriorate over Western Sahara

Claims by Algeria that Morocco has killed three of its citizens in a bomb attack are threatening to damage an already combustible relationship between the north African neighbours.

The Algerian presidency said that the three victims, reported to be truck drivers, were killed on November 1st in the border area between Mauritania and the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

In a statement the presidency described the incident as “a cowardly murder” and said several factors indicated the attack was carried out by Moroccan forces. The wording of the communiqué seemed to suggest the attack had been carried out by a drone and it added that the deaths “will not go unpunished”.

This is the latest flashpoint in a long-standing feud that already this year has triggered a migrant crisis and exacerbated Europe’s energy supply problems.


Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara following Spain’s withdrawal in 1975 has been a major cause of conflict with Algeria, which supports the Polisario Front rebel group that fights for the territory’s independence. Today, Morocco occupies about 80 per cent of Western Sahara, while the Polisario controls the rest.

There was not an immediate official Moroccan response to Algeria’s accusations. However, French news agency AFP quoted a source supposedly close to the country’s rulers who said Morocco would not target citizens of the neighbouring country.

“Morocco will never be swept into a spiral of violence and regional destabilisation,” the source also said, adding: “If Algeria wants to lead the region into war through provocation and threats, Morocco will not follow.”

End of ceasefire

Over the past year, relations between the two have been deteriorating. In November 2020, the Moroccan army entered the demilitarised zone of Guerguerat in Western Sahara, to expel a group of Sahrawi activists. The Polisario Front responded by ending a 29-year ceasefire.

This year, Spain was dragged into the dispute when it allowed the Polisario's veteran leader, Brahim Ghali, to be treated for Covid-19 in a hospital in La Rioja. Morocco was furious, seeing this as evidence that its European neighbour was taking its adversaries' side on the Western Sahara issue.

As an apparent reprisal, Morocco lifted controls along its land border with the Spanish city of Ceuta, allowing thousands of migrants to enter the enclave. Since then Madrid and Rabat have smoothed over their differences, and the Spanish foreign minister, Arancha González Laya, who was responsible for allowing Mr Ghali to enter the country, has been replaced.

But there has been no détente between the two African countries. In the summer, Algeria broke off diplomatic relations with Morocco and closed its air space to the country.

Last month UN secretary general António Guterres warned that the situation had deteriorated substantially. In a report to the Security Council, he said “there remains a clear risk of escalation while hostilities persist”.

Meanwhile, Algeria's status as a major natural gas producer has seen the conflict feed into Europe's energy crisis. On November 1st Algeria stopped using a Moroccan pipeline to transport gas to Spain and Portugal, a move expected to further increase the cost of energy for those countries.

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain