Rabat, Morocco — Moroccans are having difficulty in maintaining the isolated outpost of Zag, the nearest Moroccan garrison to the main Polisario Front guerrilla base at Tindouf, Algeria.
This is due to an apparent strategy shift on the part of the Polisario rebels.
In recent months, Polisario fighters reportedly have had little success with large- scale attacks, such as that on Smara last October. The Moroccans said such attacks were promptly repelled by their forces, aided by strafing aircraft.
Thus, the Polisario now has returned to the guerrilla warfare tactics that brought them their initial victories.
During the period from March 1 through 11 Polisario units ambushed and fought sporadically with a Moroccan force that they claimed numbered 7,000 men. The Moroccans were attempting to clear the area just south of the Draa Valley so that a vital convoy of supplies and reinforcements could push through to beleaguered Zag to the east.
Having forced the Moroccans back through the mountains via the Ngueb Pass, the Polisario Front reported a smashing victory, which they claimed left over 1, 000 Moroccans dead, wounded, or captured. Indeed, after the battle European journalists were able to spend three days within Morocco at the foot of Djebel Ouarkziz with Polisario leaders, undetected by Moroccan surveillance planes because of the irregular nature of the terrain in the area.
They reported seeing 20 captured new American-made light armored cars, as well as dozens of dead Moroccans and charred armored cars strewn about the desert. They interviewed a Moroccan captain, one of 137 prisoners taken.
The Moroccan force reportedly was made up of elite units from the large Uhud detachment sent south in December and the new Zellaqa detachment recently launched in southern Morocco -- part of a tank unit from Zag. According to Polisario, young, inexperienced recruits from the new Zellaqa unit panicked and fled when attacked, forcing those behind to retreat.
The fall of Zag, currently held by 4,000 Moroccan troops and an unknown number of civilians, would constitute a blow to Moroccan morale. It would give the Polisario Front a solid foothold within Morocco, if barely within, and thus would substantially change the nature of the war, which until now has been waged by the Polisario forces from inside Algeria.
However, Polisario attempts to penetrate deeply into the Western Sahara, like the Feb. 13 attack on Boujdor on the coast, have proved audacious but futile. And continued, exaggerated claims concerning Moroccan casualties at Boujdor and elsewhere have made inroads in their credibility.
The Polisario guerrillas are regarded here as past masters at headline-making propaganda and their VIP treatment of foreign visitors, such as former US ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young and various journalists, sometimes have earned them support in unexpected quarters.
Recently, the Polisario forces have fared less well in world opinion, especially since the January attack on Gafsa, Tunisia by a group reportedly trained and financed by Libya and aided by Algerians. To some, their backing resembles that of the Polisario too closely.
Coming after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the attack on Gafsa has caused Morocco and Tunisia to cement a solid front vis-a-vis what they perceive as the machinations of a Algerian-Libyan axis aimed at destabilizing both countries. One Moroccan officer quipped, "[Libyan leader] Quaddafi is Rabat's best agent."
Despite the problem of the Zag outpost and the unending nature of the guerrilla war, Morocco still holds the Western Sahara. Polisario incursions probably will be made more difficult in the future by the addition of a third 7, 000-man detachment scheduled to cover the troublesome north, while Uhud protects the south and Zellaqa polices the "soft belly" of the central west.
The French reportedly are cooperating with Morocco to the extent of keeping an eye on the border with Mauritania.