The Polisario Front, an Algerian-backed rebel group, is signing an agreement to ban the use of anti-personnel land mines. The agreement is with Geneva Call, a Swiss anti-mine group that works to persuade rebel groups that are not eligible to sign the Ottawa Convention to renounce the use, production and stockpiling of land mines.
Polisario's minister of defense, Mohamed Lamine Bouhali, who is in Geneva for the signing ceremony, calls land mines an unacceptable weapon in any conflict. He says it is intolerable that after 14 years of the cease-fire between the Polisario Front and Moroccan government, land mines continue to kill and maim people, livestock, and divide Saharawi families.
Defense minister Bouhali, says the decision to sign the accord to ban land mines, shows the Polisario's willingness to work for peace. He says he hopes this gesture will encourage Morocco to also renounce the use of land mines by joining the Ottawa Convention.
"If Morocco does not sign [the] Ottawa agreement or the Ottawa Convention, it means that the consequences can be quite terrible and we think that it is the duty of the international community to oblige Morocco to do so because we are looking how to achieve a peaceful solution in the area, for the benefit of the people of the region," he said.
The Polisario Front has been struggling for the independence of Western Sahara since 1973. A U.N. mediated cease-fire ended the armed conflict in 1991. But the question of Western Sahara's sovereignty is still a subject of dispute between Morocco and the Polisario Front.
As a result of the war, Western Sahara is contaminated by mines and unexploded ordinance.
The president of Geneva Call, Elisabeth Reusse-Decrey, says the Moroccan army is estimated to have laid about seven million land mines along the walls dividing the territory. She says the Polisario also admits to using land mines, though those numbers are not known. She says casualties regularly are reported, on both sides of the walls.
Ms. Reusse-Decrey says the presence of Polisario's Defense Minister in Geneva is an important sign that the rebel group is committed to peace and to fulfill its obligations under the accord.
"When they sign the Geneva Call Deed of Commitment, it means they have to stop to use mines, to stop to produce if they did before, to destroy their stockpiles, to facilitate de-mining activities and victim assistance programs in the areas under their control, and also to allow mission for verification to see if they respect their engagement," she explained.
Since its inception five years ago, Geneva Call has persuaded 28 rebel groups to sign the Deed of Commitment, among them the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army. Ms. Reusse-Decrey says this eventually led to the Sudanese government's decision to become a party to the Ottawa Convention.
She says the U.N. Mine Action group has indicated that it is ready to help the Polisario clear land mines from its territory.