Nouakchott (AFP) – Mauritania and Algeria were embroiled in a diplomatic row Monday after the tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats over a contentious news article on drugs being smuggled from Morocco.
Mauritanian online news portal Al-Bayan has angered the authorities in Nouakchott by publishing an article claiming they had complained to the United Nations that Morocco was flooding Mauritania with drugs.
The website’s editor, Moulaye Brahim Ould Moulaye M’Hamed, has been questioned by police, accused of damaging Mauritania’s relationship with Morocco by spreading “lies and false allegations”, a Mauritanian security source told AFP.
Belkacem Cherouati — the chief adviser in the Algerian embassy in Noukchott — was accused of being the article’s main source and expelled last week, security sources told AFP.
A Mauritanian envoy of a similar rank was then declared “persona non grata” by Algeria and returned home on Sunday, Mauritanian diplomatic sources said.
Both expulsions were confirmed on Monday by the Algerian foreign ministry, according to the national APS news agency, which said Algeria’s announcement came “in response to the unjustified decision of Mauritania”.
Mauritanian authorities say the article published by Al-Bayan misrepresents a report on Western Sahara presented by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to the Security Council on April 10.
The account of a February and March regional tour by Ban’s envoy Christopher Ross, says Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz “drew attention to some negative impacts of the conflict, particularly the arrival of a considerable amount of cannabis resin at his country’s northern border, in transit to Mali and beyond”.
“He stressed that the phenomenon posed a serious threat to the security of all countries of the Sahel-Saharan region because it contributed to the financing of criminal groups, extremists and terrorists,” the report goes on.
The Algerian foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment by AFP.
Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony controlled by Morocco, is claimed by the pro-independence Polisario Front, supported by Algeria, a dispute in which Mauritania affirms its “positive neutrality”.
Morocco is one of the world’s leading cannabis producers, but the authorities insist they are battling the trade, which supports more than 700,000 Moroccans, according to the interior ministry.