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Remembering the last colonial battle, one that Franco wanted to forget
Added On : 27 March 2009

Remembering the last colonial battle, one that Franco wanted to forget
850 words
23 November 2007
W (Herald Tribune)
(c) 2007 EL PAIS, SL/IHT.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the Spanish-Moroccan Ifni War

A Moroccan man with a donkey appeared on the road, followed by two other people. The Spanish troops manning the guard post ordered the party of seemingly harmless travelers to stop. All three responded by opening fire.

Gunshots rang out from nearby buildings and from the clumps of palms that lined the road as more assailants emerged. The dry riverbed nearby, until then immersed in the pre-dawn darkness, became an inferno of rifle and pistol fire. One of the Spanish soldiers guarding a munitions deposit fell to the dust, dead, the others shot back into the night. Fifteen minutes later the gunfire ceased as suddenly as it had begun. The war, however, had only just begun.

The Ifni War, fought over what is today a former Spanish province covering 1,700 square kilometers on Morocco's southern Atlantic coast, began on November 23, 1957, when a force of 2,000 Moroccans cut communications lines and stormed the garrisons and armories around the enclave. Today, 50 years later, the conflict remains Spain's forgotten war, the last of the country's colonial battles in Morocco and one that was carefully covered up by the Franco regime.

The dictator ensured that Spanish public opinion was never informed of the scale of the Ifni War, which over the course of little more than six months claimed the lives at least 198 people. A further 80 Spanish soldiers protecting the colonies remain missing to this day, along with an undetermined number of Moroccan fighters of the Liberation Army that launched the hostilities to free Ifni from Spanish rule and hand it to a recently independent Morocco.

Until then, Ifni and its capital Sidi Ifni had, along with the colony of Western Sahara to the south, been one of the last redoubts of Spain's African colonists. Like Franco himself - who launched the putsch that triggered the Spanish Civil War in 1936 from present day Morocco - the colonists, and particularly the soldiers, had enjoyed a lifestyle they could only have dreamed of on the Spanish mainland. A trooper could rise rapidly through the ranks in the colonies, garner social prestige and earn a salary that doubled those of his colleagues back in Spain. But with Spain having relinquished its protectorates further north and with a newly emboldened Moroccan state coalescing around it, Ifni's future in 1957 hung in the balance.

Unlike the parched, flat expanse of Western Sahara (then Spanish Sahara) to the south, Ifni was surrounded by rugged red mountains that fed streams lined with palms, its climate cooled by the Atlantic breeze along its 60-kilometers of coast. Of it 50,000 inhabitants, just 18 percent were Europeans, mostly soldiers, civil servants and traders and their families. The rest were mainly indigenous Berbers of the Ait Baamaran tribe, which 20 years earlier had provided 11,000 men to support Franco's uprising.

Morocco had ceded the territory to Spain in 1860 under the Treaty of Tangier, which ended the Spanish-Moroccan War, but a resurgent Morocco, following the independence of much of the country from France in 1956, sought to reclaim it. The Liberation Army was formed by nationalists who had battled the French, supported by Sultan Mohammed V and directed from the shadows by Prince Moulay Hassan, later King Hassan II. In the Ifni War, it was led by Ben Hamou, a former mercenary of the French Foreign Legion, who had between 4,000 and 5,000 men under his command. Spain, by contrast, had fewer than 2,000.

Though the official outbreak of the war occurred on November 23, the troubles had begun months earlier, when Liberation Army fighters began to infiltrate the territory, cutting communications with the outside world and sabotaging fuel and ammunition deposits. Sporadic killings occurred in the city of Sidi Ifni as assassins set their sights on police officers and soldiers, many of them Berbers and Arabs on the Spanish payroll.

Under siege

However, when the full-scale attack began, the Spanish defenders were clearly ill-prepared. Some garrisons managed to see off the attacks with relative ease, but others did not.

The fort at Telata came under siege and a convoy sent out from Sidi Ifni to relieve the 130 soldiers trapped there became bogged down in rough terrain under constant ambushes. The reinforcements had packed rations for only one day. They reached Telata after 10 days, surviving in the desert by sucking on cacti and drinking their own urine.

When they reached the fort after more reinforcements were sent out they were greeted as heroes. But their deaths and sacrifices amounted to little.

Much of the province quickly fell to Liberation Army control, and by early 1958 only Sidi Ifni itself remained in Spanish hands. It would stay that way until 1969, when, under pressure from the United Nations, Franco handed the city to Morocco. Six years later, Spain also pulled out of Western Sahara.

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