Washington, DC (August 1) — In a surprise move underscoring the growing danger in Africa’s Sahara/Sahel, Spain ordered the evacuation of all its aid-workers from the Polisario-run refugee camps near Tindouf in Algeria. Aid-workers from three other Western nations also left. Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo cited increased fears for aid-worker safety and “well-founded indications” of possible attack by al-Qaeda-linked groups in nearby northern Mali for Sunday’s military airlift of 12 Spaniards, two French, and an Italian to Madrid.
Garcia-Margallo said the decision was based on “evidence of a serious increase in insecurity in the region,” and said northern Mali had become “a platform for terrorism.” Further evidence shows the threat extends beyond Mali and into the Polisario-run camps, where it poses a risk to the aid-workers and also to tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees who are not allowed to leave.
For more than three decades, the Polisario Front, an Algerian-backed separatist group, has refused to allow refugees to leave the camps, where they are denied the most basic rights and live in bleak conditions. Unlike other refugees, the Sahrawi refugees can be repatriated and resettled elsewhere, including Morocco.
On July 19, the al-Qaeda-offshoot, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), released three aid- workers—Enric Gonyalons and Ainhoa Fernandez del Rincon of Spain and Rossella Urru of Italy—who had been kidnapped nine months ago in the Polisario’s Rabouni headquarters camp, reportedly with camp-insider help. In exchange, MUJAO reportedly received $18.4 million in ransom and the release of prisoners that included Memine Ould Oufkir, who was from the Polisario-run camps and held in Mauritania for his alleged role in the kidnapping.
“The camps have become a clear danger to refugees forced by the Polisario to live there and to aid-workers trying to help,” said Jordan Paul, Executive Director, Moroccan American Center for Policy. “After 36 years, refugees should be able to leave if they want. It’s their right—they should be allowed to exercise it.”
Yesterday, at a Capitol Hill forum on North Africa, Atlantic Council security expert, J. Peter Pham, said the “young population in the camps, with little or no prospects, has created a fertile ground for recruiting” by terrorists and traffickers in the region. A recent Carnegie Paper called deteriorating conditions in the camps “a tinderbox waiting to explode” and links between AQIM and camp members “a major security threat to the Maghreb and the Sahel.”
MUJAO spokesperson Adnan Abu Elwalid Sahraoui reinforced the point when he threatened to stage more Sahel kidnappings. “We will take them as soon as they enter the territories of Mauritania, Mali, Algeria or Niger.”
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