RABAT, Morocco—Morocco’s government said it has broken up a cell linked to al-Qaida’s North African branch in the disputed Western Sahara, thwarting planned attacks on police and uncovering caches of weapons.
Police dismantled a 27-member cell and discovered three weapon caches containing 30 Kalashnikov automatic rifles and two rocket-propelled grenade launchers in Western Sahara, Interior Minister Taieb Cherqaoui told reporters Wednesday.
Cherqaoui said the cell was planning suicide bomb attacks against police and bank robberies to finance its activities.
Morocco says Western Sahara is part of its kingdom but has been locked for decades in a dispute with a local independence movement called the Polisario Front, which also lays claim to the territory.
Al Qaida’s North African branch operates throughout the vast arid region, from Mauritania to Chad, but has not been known to have a presence in Western Sahara.
The cell was led by a Moroccan citizen based in an al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa camp in Mali, Cherqaoui said. Members of the cell were to be sent for training in camps in Mali and Algeria, according a government statement.
Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa, known by the acronym AQIM, is an Algeria-based group that joined Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network in 2006.
It operates mainly in Algeria, where it wages frequent ambushes and bombings, but has crossed the porous desert borders of the region to spread violence in the rest of northwestern Africa.
Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger have opened a joint military headquarters in the region in an unusual, united effort to combat terrorism and trafficking across borders.
AQIM claimed responsibility for kidnapping five French hostages, as well as two people from Togo and Madagascar, last September as they slept in the Niger uranium mining town of Arlit. It is believed to have taken them to neighboring Mali.
AQIM has claimed several other kidnappings of tourists in the region in recent years, including British hostage Edwin Dyer, who was killed in 2009 when Britain refused to pay a ransom. The group is also blamed for killing a U.S. aid worker in neighboring Mauritania in June, 2009.