Tunisia summoned its ambassador from Morocco on Saturday amid a dispute over a visit to the North African nation by the head of the Polisario Front that is seeking independence of the Western Sahara.
The move came one day after Morocco recalled its envoy from Tunisia in protest of a meeting between President Kais Saied and Brahim Ghali ahead of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) summit, due to open on Saturday.
Morocco termed Ghali’s invitation as a “a serious and unprecedented act, which deeply offends the feelings of the Moroccan people and its forces." Rabat said it will not attend the two-day summit in response to the Tunisian move.
Responding to the Moroccan statement, the Tunisian Foreign Ministry said it was “surprised” by the Moroccan reaction.
“Tunisia has maintained its neutrality on the Western Sahara issue…This stance remains unchanged until the parties reach a peaceful solution acceptable to all,” the ministry said in a statement.
The ministry said Tunisia “is keen on maintaining the cordial, brotherly and distinguished relations with the Moroccan people.”
Western Sahara is an area along Africa’s Atlantic coast that has a population of about 600,000 residents, according to UN estimates. It was colonized by Spain in the 19th century and annexed in 1975 by Morocco.
Rabat insists on its right to the Western Sahara region, but has proposed a self-rule system under Moroccan sovereignty.
The pro-independence Polisario Front, for its part, demands that a popular referendum be held in Western Sahara to decide the region’s political fate -- a proposal backed by Algeria.