MADRID—The leader of a movement seeking independence from Morocco who is at the center of a diplomatic row between Rabat and Madrid has flown out of Spain to Algeria, his group said.
Brahim Ghali was released from a hospital in northern Spain following more than six weeks of treatment after contracting COVID-19, according to a statement sent to The Associated Press by the self-declared Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic, which is based in refugee camps in western Algeria.
Ghali is the leader of the Polisario Front, an Algeria-backed pro-independence movement representing the local Sahrawi people of Africa’s Western Sahara, and of the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic. Morocco annexed Western Sahara in the 1970s after Spain’s colonial administration ended. The Polisario Front has long tried to end Moroccan rule over the region.
Ghali departed hours after testifying Tuesday via videoconference in a Spanish investigation into allegations against him of torture, genocide, and other crimes. A Spanish magistrate ruled after Ghali’s testimony that he should remain free while the investigation continues.
Ghali, 71, flew out of Pamplona airport overnight and will continue his recovery in Algeria, the statement said.
His presence in Spain infuriated Morocco, which regards Ghali as a terrorist, and triggered a diplomatic crisis between the two countries, which have been cooperating in fighting terrorism, drug smuggling, and migration into Europe. Amid the dispute, thousands of migrants crossed the border from Morocco into Spain as Morocco apparently relaxed border controls.
In a stinging rebuke, Moroccan authorities also questioned publicly whether Spain could be trusted.
Spain, like most other Western countries, has urged a negotiated solution through the United Nations to the question of Western Sahara’s future. But the issue became clouded last December when the U.S. Trump administration formally recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara in return for Rabat’s normalization of ties with Israel.
Spanish government spokeswoman María Jesús Montero said Wednesday she hoped Ghali’s departure would help “draw a line” under the tensions with Morocco.
“We have to let high diplomacy do its work,” she told reporters.
But she also pushed back against Rabat’s pressure.
“Spain enjoys national sovereignty, so Spanish foreign policy is decided by its government, its parliament, and our decision-making on international issues cannot be subjected to any conditionality,” she said.
Ghali checked into the Spanish hospital under a false identity after arriving in the country by plane last month with an Algerian diplomatic passport and with the consent of the Spanish government, which said it acted on humanitarian grounds.
Rabat withdrew its ambassador to Madrid and said it wouldn’t fill the position if Ghali left Spain under the same cloak of secrecy.
There was no immediate reaction Wednesday from Morocco.