‘Stay clear’: Rebel group’s warning to Twiggy

A North African separatist group waging a guerrilla war against the Moroccan government has warned Australian mining magnate Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest to “stay away” from its disputed territory.

He is asking him to re-examine a multi-billion dollar green energy scheme that he claims will help fund the ongoing repression and human rights abuses of indigenous people.

The Polisario Front, a rebel nationalist liberation movement of the Sahrawi people, has been fighting for the independence of the Western Sahara region since 1975, when it renounced its status as a Spanish colony and was then claimed by Morocco in the north and Mauritania in the south.

Covering an area the size of Great Britain in northwest Africa with a long stretch of coastline on the Atlantic Ocean, the Western Sahara is rich in minerals and natural resources, particularly fisheries, just opposite the Canary Islands.

Tarfaya, a small fishing town in southwestern Morocco just 35 kilometers from the disputed border with Western Sahara, is the proposed site of a new green ammonia production center for OCP Group, Morocco’s state-owned phosphate mine and fertilizer producer, which in April announced a major joint venture with Fortescue of Perth.

Kamal Fadel, an Australian spokesman for the Polisario Front, said there were serious concerns about Fortescue’s “involvement with a regime that has a poor human rights record, violations of international law and occupation of territory”.

“This investment … in Morocco gives him the means to buy weapons, to feed the army that is occupying Western Sahara,” Mr Fadel told news.com.au.

“It also encourages Morocco not to resolve this issue and encourages its decision not to cooperate with the UN, its defiance of the international community. This concerns us – we understand that Fortescue does not invest in other regions where there is war or invasion or aggression, but in this case they are doing so. We want them to stay out of Western Sahara, not to interfere.”

Fortescue insists none of his plans touch disputed territory.

But Mr Fadel said it was not that simple, noting that OCP Group’s Bou Craa mine, located in Western Sahara, accounts for about 10 percent of its total phosphate mining volume and 20 percent of its total phosphate exports.

“It’s a big component,” Mr. Fadel said.

“We know that the joint venture between Fortescue and OCP involves improving the production of green manures, so there is a link. We just feel that the entire involvement of this company in Morocco at this time undermines the UN process and is likely to increase the suffering of our people who have suffered for some 50 years from the invasion and occupation of their homeland.”

A Fortescue spokesman reiterated on Friday that “none of Fortescue’s proposed projects in Morocco are in a disputed region”.

“The OCP Fortescue joint venture is progressing rapidly,” he said.

The shock to global fertilizer supplies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has sparked a major boom for the North African phosphate superpower – which is home to about 70 percent of the world’s reserves – bringing in record revenues and giving the kingdom more international leverage to push its claims over Western Sahara.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) notes that “given Western Sahara’s status as a non-self-governing territory, there are international law considerations regarding the importation of natural resources derived from Western Sahara”.

“We recommend that companies seek legal advice before importing such material,” says DFAT.

‘Brutal Occupation’

The United Nations and the International Court of Justice have recognized the right to self-determination for approximately one million Sahrawis.

Mauritania abandoned its claim in 1979 due to relentless attacks by Polisario fighters, but Morocco has continued to claim sovereignty over the territory, which it considers an integral part of its kingdom.

Morocco has long rejected calls for a referendum on Sahrawi independence.

The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) is considered a semi-recognized state, recognized by dozens of mostly African and Arab UN members, notably Iran and neighboring Algeria, which hosts many Sahrawi refugee camps and has long supported Polisario.

A UN-backed ceasefire was signed in 1991, but fighting between the two groups has flared up again in 2020, with the Polisario Front launching attacks on Moroccan troops in the region this year.

Human rights groups have accused Morocco of serious abuses in its brutal crackdown on Sahrawis, including torture and forced confessions.

In one recent incident, Moroccan police “arbitrarily detained” a man “after he appeared in a video by a Spanish tourist who said he was a proud Sahrawi and supported the self-determination of his people,” according to Amnesty International.

“The police tortured and otherwise ill-treated him by handcuffing and hooding him, slapping him in the face, spitting on him and threatening to rape and kill him with acid,” the group wrote in its report for the year 2023.

Human Rights Watch says Moroccan authorities “systematically prevent gatherings supporting Saharan self-determination, obstruct the work of some local human rights NGOs, including blocking their legal registration, and occasionally beat activists and journalists in detention and on the streets or raid their homes and destroy or confiscate their belongings”.

“Human Rights Watch documented some of these beatings and raids, including on independence activist Hassana Duihi,” the group said in a 2021 report.

“In 2021, 19 Sahrawi men remained in prison after being convicted in unfair trials in 2013 and 2017 of killing 11 members of the security forces during clashes that broke out after authorities forcibly broke up a large protest camp in the city Gdeim Izik in Western Sahara in 2010. Both courts based their convictions almost entirely on their confessions to the police, without seriously investigating claims that the defendants signed their confessions under torture.”

Mr Fadel said it was a “very brutal occupation”.

“Kidnapping people, imprisoning them, torturing them, most of them die in prison after decades,” he said.

“There is no basic respect for human rights in Western Sahara. The people have suffered a lot and are still suffering. The regime in Morocco is an autocratic, tyrannical regime, it is an absolute monarchy where the king rules and is the richest person in Morocco because he controls all the businesses there, all the major companies.”

Morocco, for its part, has accused Iran and its Lebanese Shiite proxy Hezbollah of training and arming the Polisario Front – a claim Iran has denied – and has also accused the Polisario of collaborating with the Sunni terrorist group Al Qaeda.

Mr Fadel claims this is “baseless Moroccan propaganda”.

Saharans are mostly Sunni Muslims.

“During the Cold War they said we were communists, when that was out of fashion, they said we were affiliated with Al Qaeda, and when that didn’t work, now they associate us with Shiite Iran and Hezbollah,” Mr. Fadel said.

“When Morocco was asked to provide evidence of this link, they could provide nothing. It’s just about creating fear among the international community.”

‘Strategic partnership’

In April, ASX-listed Fortescue announced a joint venture with OCP Group, one of the world’s largest phosphate miners, to supply green hydrogen, ammonia and fertilizers to Morocco, Europe and international markets.

The deal includes the potential development of production facilities and a research and development center to boost Morocco’s fast-growing renewable energy industry, the miner said in a release.

“Our strategic partnership with Fortescue is a testament to our shared commitment to decarbonisation, driving the development of state-of-the-art facilities and providing competitive renewable energy, products and technology,” OCP Group Chairman and CEO Mostafa Terrab said in a statement at the time. .

“This is a key step towards fulfilling our vision of simultaneously ensuring global food security and combating climate change.”

Mr. Forrest, CEO and founder of Fortescue, said in a statement that the two companies will “build a world-leading and globally competitive platform to accompany Morocco’s journey to green energy production, manufacturing and an industrial powerhouse.”

“Together we will be a key starter and a green corridor to Europe and to and from the Atlantic basin,” he said.

“Morocco will be an important player in the global energy transition, as it is home to some of the most promising wind and solar resources in the world, two large coasts and is in close proximity to Europe and America.”

OCP Group, which generated more than US$9 billion (S$13.5 billion) in revenue last year, recently launched a green investment strategy focused on increasing fertilizer production to 20 million tonnes a year from 12 million tonnes in 2022. and investing in renewable energy.

“The strategy envisages a total investment of approximately US$13 billion ($19.5 billion) over the period 2023-2027, which will enable the group to use 100% renewable energy by 2027 and achieve full carbon neutrality by 2040,” it said.

The Moroccan joint venture hit the headlines this week after Forrest, 62, who split from his wife Nicole last year, photographed The Daily Mail kissing a mysterious woman on a walk in Paris.

The woman was later named Australian newspaper as Leila Benali, Morocco’s Minister of Energy — who is also on the board of the OCP Group.

A few days later, Ms Benali issued a carefully worded statement through the state Department of Energy, slamming the “offensive” reports and appearing to deny that the woman was in the photo.

Fortescue has repeatedly refused to confirm or deny reports of Ms Benali’s name – even after she denied it – or comment in any way on the photo.

A Fortescue spokesperson said earlier this week only that the team is “engaging with key stakeholders as we continue to develop our ambitious strategy with OCP, which we have been developing for more than two years, to develop green energy, hydrogen and ammonia in Morocco “.

“We are committed to working with OCP to build a world-leading and globally competitive platform to accompany Morocco’s journey to green energy production, manufacturing and industrial powerhouse,” he said.

Mr Fadel said he was writing directly to Mr Forrest on behalf of the Polisario Front.

“The message for him would be to think about the plight of these people,” he said.

“We know he’s very philanthropic and wants to help charities, he’s been very vocal about the war in Ukraine and he also wants to take care of the world and the environment. But it is not good to just take care of the environment and cause people to suffer. A good environment without respect for human rights is not good. Maybe it’s good for business, but it’s not good for us and for human rights.”

Asked if he believed Mr Forrest was aware of Sahrawi concerns beforehand, Mr Fadel said the billionaire was “a very smart man”.

“The problem now is that emotions are involved,” he added.

frank.chung@news.com.au

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