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Morocco cancels African Lion exercise

altMorocco has cancelled the annual African Lion exercise with the United States over US support for United Nations monitoring of human rights in the disputed Western Sahara territory.

African Lion 2013 was set to begin yesterday but was cancelled by Morocco on Tuesday. Many of the 1 400 US servicemen and 900 Moroccan troops, together with foreign observers, were already in place.

“We’re in the process of redeploying,” said Captain Lauren Schulz, a Marine Corps spokeswoman. “African Lion 13 has been suspended,” she told Stars & Stripes.

US Africa Command (Africom) declined to cite a reason for the change, referring questions to the Moroccan government. But an Associated Press report said the event was cancelled due to Moroccan anger with the Obama administration over its support for having the U.N. monitor human rights in a territorial dispute over the territory of Western Sahara.

Morocco occupied the desert region in 1976 unleashing a decades-long guerrilla struggle by the indigenous Polisario Front group, which ended with a U.N. cease-fire in 1991. Since then talks between the two sides have remained stalemated, with Polisario insisting on an independence referendum and Morocco proposing autonomy for the mineral-rich former Spanish colony.

Earlier this month, the Military Sealift Command’s USNS Dahl, a cargo transport vessel, pulled into a Moroccan port to deliver more than 250 short tons of equipment for the exercise. Marines disembarked everything from 7-ton trucks, armored Humvees and howitzers to Meals, Ready to Eat. Now, all that gear must be reloaded, Stars & Stripes reports.

“We had a plan to redeploy, so we just accelerated the timeline,” Schulz said.

In addition to the 1,400 U.S. troops, about 900 Royal Moroccan Armed Forces were to take part in military drills focused on a wide range of activities. Months in the planning, Africa Lion involves live-fire and manoeuvring exercises, amphibious operations and aerial refuelling and low-level flight training.

Observers from Germany and 12 other European and African countries also were slated to attend.

Marines managed to get in some training with their Moroccan partners during the initial offloading phase of the exercise, which was to formally commence on Wednesday, Schulz said.

While African Lion 13 is cancelled, the longstanding exercises will likely continue in the future, according to Africom officials.

“The Moroccan government has deferred the exercise to a later date,” said Tom Saunders, an Africom spokesman, in a statement. “The US and Moroccan militaries remain long-standing partners. We hope to continue to build our partnership through future military engagements with the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces, as directed by U.S. Africa Command and the United States Government.”to have one of the more capable military forces in Africa", Elliott said.
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