Morocco’s King Mohammed VI on Wednesday appointed a prominent general in charge of operations in the disputed Western Sahara as his deputy in command of the armed forces.
King Mohammed, who is supreme commander of the North African country’s military, “named Lieutenant General Belkhir El-Farouk as Inspector General of the Royal Armed Forces,” said a statement carried by the official MAP news agency.
El-Farouk “was selected for this post in light of his professional abilities and the high level of responsibility he has shown in the various missions with which he has been charged,” it said.
He “will continue to carry out his mission as commander of the southern zone”, it said, referring to an area which covers the Western Sahara.
Morocco sees the former Spanish colony as an integral part of its territory, but the armed Polisario movement, backed by the kingdom’s arch-rival Algeria, seeks an independence referendum there.
Tensions rose sharply in November after the separatists blocked a key road in the Guerguerat area leading to neighbouring Mauritania, arguing it violated a 1991 ceasefire deal.
El Farouk commanded an operation sending troops in to reopen the road.
The Polisario responded by declaring the UN-backed ceasefire null and void, and the two sides have traded fire intermittently since.
The Western Sahara is the biggest bone of contention between Rabat and Algiers, which last month broke ties with its neighbour citing “hostile actions” – a claim dismissed by the kingdom.
Morocco controls 80 percent of the desert territory and has offered autonomy there, but insists it must retain sovereignty.
That position was endorsed by the US administration of Donald Trump in the final months of his presidency, in exchange for Rabat’s normalisation of ties with Israel.
The sparsely-populated desert territory boasts significant phosphate resources and a long Atlantic coastline with access to rich fishing waters.
Morocco’s military has around 310,000 active personnel and 150,000 reservists, according to specialist website Global Firepower.
It cooperates closely with the US under a treaty that in 2020 was extended for another decade.
In June, the kingdom hosted African Lion, a vast US-led annual exercise.