Spain’s ‘U-turn’ on W. Sahara sends ambassadors in and out

MADRID (AP) — Morocco on Sunday reinstated its ambassador to Spain, effectively ending a 10-month row between the two key Mediterranean neighbors after Madrid shifted its long-standing position on Western Sahara, its former colony in North Africa.

But the move opened a new diplomatic front for Spain with Algeria — its other North Africa neighbor, a crucial natural gas supplier and Morocco’s regional foe — which recalled its own ambassador to Madrid in protest for Spain’s “U-turn.”

Western Sahara, a vast territory largely barren but rich in phosphates and facing fertile fishing grounds in the Atlantic Ocean, is disputed between Morocco, which annexed it in 1976, and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front independence movement.

Karima Benyaich, the Moroccan envoy to Spain, on Sunday told Spanish state news agency EFE that she had returned to Madrid the day before, shortly after the Spanish government backed Rabat’s plan to give more autonomy to Western Sahara as long as the territory remains under its grip.

In a letter to Moroccan King Mohammed VI, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called Rabat’s proposal “the most serious, realistic and credible” initiative for resolving the decades-long dispute.

The Polisario, however, has criticized Spain’s shifting stance. The independence-seeking Sahrawis say the decision is a “grave error” that yields to Morocco’s leverage over the control of migrants crossing into Europe.

They also accuse Madrid of taking sides in a dispute that for decades the Spanish government said could only be settled in a referendum to be held under the United Nations.

“It’s a pleasure to return to work in Madrid and strengthen the relations between Spain and Morocco in the way that our respective countries have determined,” Benyaich was quoted by EFE.

Algeria, which has thrown its weight behind the Polisario, recalled its ambassador to Spain on Saturday, condemning Madrid’s “abrupt U-turn” in a statement.

A Spanish Foreign Ministry official said that Madrid had “previously informed the Algerian government about its position regarding Sahara.”

“For Spain, Algeria is a strategic, priority and reliable partner with whom we intend to maintain a privileged relationship,” the official, who was not authorized to be named in media reports, said.