Africa Eco Race threatened by Western Sahara clash

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Credit: Africa Eco Race

The 2022 Africa Eco Race has endured a tumultuous organisation process that has only grown messier. With a month until it is scheduled to take part, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic issued an advisory Thursday to organisers requesting for them to avoid running the race through Western Sahara due to political strife in the region.

Since a ceasefire ended a fifteen-year war in 1991, Western Sahara has been disputed between the SADR and Morocco, with the latter occupying 75% of the territory while the SADR holds the rest. Forty-one United Nations members recognise the SADR, a contrast to just the United States doing so in Morocco’s favour to improve Moroccan-Israel relations in 2020. The UN itself consider Western Sahara a “non-self-governing territory” that does not fall under either state’s laws.

The twelve-stage Eco Race begins in Monaco before heading across the Mediterranean to Morocco. Although the first three stages go through Moroccan cities, the fourth sees competitors start in southern Morocco and cross into Western Sahara where they finish in Remz el Quebir. Stage #5 takes place exclusively in Western Sahara, with the former going to Dakhla where a rest day will be held on 23 October. Under Moroccan occupation, Dakhla is the capital of Dakhla-Oued Ed-Dahab. The sixth stage leaves the territory for Mauritania via Guerguerat where the majority of the race’s second half occurs and will end in Dakar, Senegal.

While the ceasefire ended formal military actions for nearly three decades, the SADR’s ruling party Polisario Front declared war on Morocco in November 2020 in response to clashes in Guerguerat. The town was the site of two interference attempts by the Polisario Front on the Eco Race before the UN convinced them to stop: 2018 saw armed militias deployed there to intercept incoming racers heading to Lac Rose, while the 2020 edition began with the border crossing being blocked by protesters but eventually proceeded.

With open conflict restarting, the SADR launched lobbying for the race to be re-routed away from the “war zone”. The government first advised outside parties to “refrain from any activity of any kind” in the territory on 18 November 2020 shortly after the declaration of war.

Credit: Africa Eco Race

“The organisers of ‘Africa Eco Race’ have announced that their edition of this year, scheduled from 15 to 30 October 2022, will enter and cross the Occupied Territories of the Sahrawi Republic (SADR) in complicity with the occupying authorities of Morocco,” reads the SADR statement.

“As stated in its communiqué dated 18 November 2020, the Government of the Sahrawi Republic reaffirms that, because of the ongoing act of aggression carried out by the occupying state of Morocco on the Sahrawi National Territory since 13 November 2020, the entire Territory of the Sahrawi Republic, including its terrestrial, maritime and air spaces, remains a war zone where military confrontations between the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army and the Moroccan occupying forces continue along the Moroccan wall of shame.

“Consequently, the Government of the Sahrawi Republic once again launches an urgent call on all countries of the world and public and private sectors to refrain from any activity of any kind in the Sahrawi National Territory. In this regard, the Government of the Sahrawi Republic warns those responsible for ‘Africa Eco Race 2022’, the competitors, sponsors, and all participants and hold them accountable for the consequences that may result from their entering and crossing the Sahrawi National Territory.

“The Sahrawi Republic reserves the right to use all legitimate means and to respond resolutely to any actions that aim to undermine its sovereignty and territorial integrity. It holds the occupying state of Morocco fully responsible for the consequences that may result from its continued provocations that seriously undermine not only the prospects for relaunching the already stalled UN peace process but also peace and security of the entire region.”

Eco Race officials have not commented on the matter. Nevertheless, security is far from an alien concept for the event, which débuted in 2009 as a replacement for the Dakar Rally and follows that race’s traditional Europe to Dakar route. The Dakar Rally relocated to South America after the 2008 edition was cancelled due to fears of a terrorist attack stemming from the killing of four French tourists in Mauritania; current host country Saudi Arabia has also faced security concerns after an improvised explosive device injured a racer before the 2022 Rally and sparked a terrorism probe by French authorities.

The 2022 Eco Race was initially scheduled for March but was moved to October due to COVID-19. The pandemic previously forced the 2021 race to be called off.

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