May 1, 2018 / 3:10 PM / 2 months ago

Morocco severs ties with Iran, accusing it of backing Polisario Front

RABAT (Reuters) - Morocco will sever diplomatic ties with Iran over Tehran’s support for the Polisario Front, a Western Sahara independence movement, the Moroccan foreign minister said on Tuesday.

Morocco claimed Western Sahara after colonial Spain left, but Polisario fought a guerrilla war for independence for the Sahrawi people until a U.N.-backed ceasefire.

Morocco will close its embassy in Tehran and will expel the Iranian ambassador in Rabat, Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita told reporters.

He said that Iran and its Lebanese Shi’ite ally, Hezbollah, were supporting Polisario by training and arming its fighters, via the Iranian embassy in Algeria.

“Hezbollah sent military officials to Polisario and provided the front with ... weapons and trained them on urban warfare,” Bourita said.

Algeria, Morocco’s neighbour, hosts camps of displaced from the conflict region and Polisario members. It was not immediately possible to get Iranian reaction to the Moroccan accusation. Iran has backed Polisario in the past.

The Western Sahara region has effectively been split by an earthen wall separating an area controlled by Morocco that it claims as its southern provinces and territory controlled by the Polisario, with a U.N.-mandated buffer zone between them.

In 2009, Morocco cut diplomatic links with Iran, accusing it of questioning Sunni rule of Bahrain, a Gulf Arab island that has a Shi’ite majority. Ties were gradually restored around 2014, but they were never strong, with Rabat backing Tehran’s arch-rival, Saudi Arabia.

Reporting by Ahmed ElJechtimi, writing by Ulf Laessing; editing by Gareth Jones, Larry King

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