The Port Elizabeth High Court will hear a claim later this month involving a seized Moroccan ship that the Polisario movement in Western Sahara complained was carrying phosphate taken illegally from disputed territory.
The 34 000-ton vessel, laden with phosphate from Western Sahara and destined for New Zealand, was blocked from sailing from the Port of Ngqura on Monday following a court application seeking that the vessel return its cargo.
Port of Ngqura manager Tandi Lebakeng said the NM Cherry Blossom had been attached by the sheriff of the high court in Port Elizabeth.
“This vessel is anchored in the Port Elizabeth anchorage area,” Lebakeng said.
The May 18 court hearing, announced by a lawyer for the movement on Thursday, should test Polisario’s use of a European court ruling last year that said Western Sahara should not be considered part of Morocco in European Union and Moroccan deals.
The Marshall Island-flagged 190m NM Cherry Blossom, seized by a maritime court order on Monday, was carrying 50 000 tons of phosphate to New Zealand from Laayoune in the Moroccan-controlled part of the disputed territory for Morocco’s OCP phosphate export company.
Western Sahara has been disputed since war broke out in 1975 between Morocco and the Polisario movement fighting for the Sahrawi people’s independence there.
A 1991 ceasefire split the region into separate parts controlled by Morocco and Polisario.
“On May 18 we will be seeking a final order saying that the cargo will remain interdicted from leaving the jurisdiction of the court until such time as my client’s court case for the return of the property is heard,” said Andre Bowley, the Polisario movement’s lawyer, in Cape Town.
The temporary order means the NM Cherry Blossom remains at anchor under the jurisdiction of the Port of Ngqura.
OCP has said it expects a quick resolution once the details of the case are heard.
Morocco’s government said on Thursday it did not expect Polisario’s legal challenge to succeed.
“There have been failed attempts to undermine Morocco’s territorial integrity in the past and future attempts will fail again,” government spokesman Mustapha El Khalfi said.
Bowley said the temporary court order made provision for OCP and five other respondents, including the ship owners and the New Zealand buyers of the cargo, to put up financial security in lieu of the phosphate shipment.
“If you want to carry on sailing with the phosphate on board the ship, then fine, put up a bank guarantee securing the amount and value of the phosphate, then the ship can depart,” he said, adding that the estimated value of the cargo was about $5-million (R66-million).
Morocco and Polisario have been locked in diplomatic and legal battles since 1991. UN peacekeepers had to step in when tension flared between Moroccan forces and Polisario brigades in the buffer zone near the Mauritania border.
In January, Morocco rejoined the African Union regional body, where Polisario’s self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) is also a member.
South Africa and Algeria have been key supporters of the SADR. – Reuters