United Nations “peacekeepers” in the disputed African territory of Western Sahara have vandalized ancient rock paintings, a UN official told the London Times. The paper published photos of the paintings at the archaeological site of Lajuad, some 6,000 years old—defaced with spray paint. Julian Harston, the UN official responsible for Western Sahara, said he was shocked by the vandalism, and that funds would be sought from UNESCO to remove the graffiti. UN peacekeepers were deployed in 1991 to monitor a ceasefire between Moroccan occupation forces and the Polisario Front independence movement.
Nick Brook, a climate scientist who runs the Western Sahara Project, posted photos to his blog showing graffiti more than a meter high on granite rocks. “It is a tragedy that UN personnel tasked with resolving one of the world’s longest running military and political conflicts are engaging in the wilful destruction of important archaeological sites that have much to teach us about the prehistory of a part of the world that is virtually unknown to the international research community,” he writes on his blog, Sand and Dust. (BBC, Jan. 31)
The incident has already become a political football, with the Casablanca-based Moroccan Sahara Association (ASM)—which supports Moroccan annexation of the territory—calling Harston’s apology to the Polisario Front a “serious diplomatic faux pas.” A spokesman for the UN Mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO) said Harston “apologized to the Polisario representatives because they were the ones who brought up the issue with him” at recent talks in Manhasset, Long Island. Ahmed Bujari, the Polisario representative to the UN, dismissed the ASM protest, telling AFP: “Morocco has no legal basis to complain since no one in the world recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara.” (AFP, Jan. 31)
Morocco and Frente Polisario are to meet again for a fourth round of talks in Manhasset in March. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that in their previous meets, “there was hardly any exchange that could be characterized as negotiations.” (UN News Service, Jan. 29)