Johannesburg - South African authorities have detained a Moroccan cargo ship after Western Sahara's Polisario Front independence movement obtained a court order to seize 54 000 tons of phosphate on board.
The seizure follows a European Union Court of Justice ruling in December that said EU agreements on closer ties and trade with Morocco should not apply to the disputed Western Sahara region. Morocco considers Western Sahara as its "southern provinces" after annexing the former Spanish colony in 1975.
The independence movement has seen the EU ruling as a victory, saying the people of Western Sahara must have a say in deals that include the exportation of the mineral-rich region's resources.
The export of resources from a "place under occupation" is wrong, Polisario Front member Emhamed Khadad said in a statement on the cargo ship's detention.
The ship was carrying the phosphate cargo to New Zealand. The independence movement initiated legal proceedings in South Africa when it became clear that the cargo ship would call at Port Elizabeth during its journey.
South Africa is considered a key ally of the Polisario Front and does not recognize Morocco's annexation of Western Sahara.
Morocco's state-run phosphate giant OCP insists it is acting in Western Sahara under international law. The South African order "is a routine and temporary measure made on the basis of only one party's allegations," OCP's general counsel Otmane Bennani Smires said in an email. "We are fully confident of a favourable resolution as we will soon have the opportunity to present the actual facts of this case to the South African court."
Moroccan government spokesperson Mustapha Khalfi said the natural resources in the region are "exploited in the framework of international law and Moroccan sovereignty" and claimed that Morocco's investment in the region is far more than any revenues made.
A few months ago, the Polisario Front tried and failed to get European authorities to detain another cargo ship, the Key Bay, which was transporting fish oil extracted from fishing off the Western Sahara coast.
Independence supporters have called the dispute over Western Sahara the last case of colonisation on the African continent.
Late last month, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution backing the secretary-general's new effort to resolve the 40-year conflict over Western Sahara. The UN brokered a cease-fire in 1991 and established a peacekeeping mission to monitor it and to help prepare a referendum on the territory's future that has never taken place.
The independence movement estimates the region's population at between 350 000 and 500 000.