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05 June 2023

Soldiers smuggled arms for Al Qaeda: Morocco

By Reuters

Morocco said five of its soldiers face trial after they helped to smuggle weapons into an area of the disputed Western Sahara that were destined for a cell linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

In a statement carried by official media on Wednesday, the interior ministry said the five soldiers belonged to an infantry regiment in Amghala, an oasis in the Moroccan-controlled area of the Western Sahara, where last week security forces seized a large cache of weapons it said were linked to a militant cell.

"These soldiers helped smugglers introduce contraband goods in exchange for sums of money, without ever checking the nature of these ... smuggled products, that were often carried on camels' backs," the ministry said.

Morocco last week said it had broken up a 27-member cell of militants suspected of planning to set up a rear base in Morocco from where it would plan bank robberies and attacks using explosive belts and car bombs against security services and foreign interests.

The seized weapons included 30 Kalashnikov assault rifles, two rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) and ammunition, the ministry said last week. Morocco applies stringent regulations on firearms and bans their public trade.

The weapons were smuggled, the ministry said, through the Berm of the Western Sahara, a 2,700-km-long defensive wall structure with mutliple control posts manned by Moroccan soldiers that was erected by Morocco in the 1980s.

The wall aimed to consolidate Rabat's claim over the sparsely-populated territory and fend off guerilla attacks by the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, which claims it as its own. About half Morocco's army is stationed in the Western Sahara.

The five soldiers allegedly allowed the smugglers to pass goods through their own control post, the ministry said.

The Polisario Front has distanced itself from the cell, saying it was working with Algeria and Mauritania to "fight terrorism" but Morocco had rejected its offer to do the same.

Violence linked to militancy is rare in Morocco, a staunch Western ally with a reputation for stability that has helped to entice millions of tourists to the country.

The last big attack was a series of suicide bombings in the economic capital, Casablanca, in 2003 that killed 45 people. Since then security services say they have rounded up more than 60 radical cells.