Tunisia said on Saturday it would recall its ambassador from Morocco for talks the day after the kingdom did the same in response to the Tunisian president welcoming the head of the Polisario movement.

The Polisario wants an independent state in Western Sahara, a vast mineral-rich desert that Morocco considers a sovereign part of its territory.

Tunisian President Kais Said hosted Polisario chief Brahim Ghali on Friday as he arrived to attend the Japan-Africa investment conference TICAD.

In response to what it called “hostile” and “unnecessarily provocative” conduct, Morocco immediately withdrew its Tunis ambassador from consultations and canceled participation in high-profile meetings.

On Saturday, the Tunisian foreign ministry expressed “surprise” at Morocco’s reaction.

“Tunisia remains completely neutral on the Western Sahara issue, in line with international law,” the statement said.

“This position remains unchanged until the parties concerned find a peaceful solution acceptable to all.”

Said spent much of Friday welcoming African leaders who arrived at the TICAD conference, including Ghali, who is also the president of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

Morocco accused Tunisia of “unilaterally” inviting Amir Polisario “against Japan’s advice and violated the preparation process and established rules”.

However, Tunisia said on Saturday that it had directly invited SADR, a member state of the African Union, to attend the meeting, noting that it had previously attended such meetings alongside Morocco.

The move comes after French President Emmanuel Macron, Morocco’s biggest rival and supporter of the Polisario, for a three-day visit aimed at mending ties with the former French colony. It happened when I visited Algeria.

This is not the first time Galli’s travels have provoked outrage among Moroccans.

In April 2021, he traveled to Spain for treatment for Covid-19, sparking a year-long diplomatic dispute between Spain and the North African kingdom.

That ended after Madrid dropped its decades of neutrality in the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara in favor of Morocco’s plans for limited autonomy there.

After an armed struggle, the Polisario agreed to a ceasefire in 1991 and promised a UN-monitored referendum on self-determination, which has never happened.

“We regret Morocco’s absence,” African Union Acting President Macky Sall said in a speech to the TICAD delegation on Saturday.

“I hope this issue can be a solution for the smooth running of the Africa-Japan partnership,” he said.

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