Maltese authorities have reportedly turned back an Air Algerie flight that was planning to repatriate Western Saharan nationals and members of the Algerian-backed independence movement, the Polisario Front.
According to the investigative news website Algerie Part, the vacant plane was ordered to return empty-handed after landing in the Maltese capital Valletta on Saturday.
"It was a special flight that had been set up by the Algerian authorities with the aim of repatriating … active members of the Polisario front," the report said.
However, the Air Algerie crew were turned away by Maltese authorities as they "had not given their agreement" to authorise the repatriation operation.
The flight was intending to repatriate the members to Algeria's Tindouf province, on the border between Mauritania and Morocco where there are an estimated 173,000 Sahrawi refugees living across five camps, many of whom were displaced over 45 years ago following conflict pitting the Polisario Front against Morocco and Mauritania over disputed territory.
Morocco has been in conflict with the Polisario Front over the Western Sahara since 1975, after the Spanish occupation ended. It turned into an armed confrontation that lasted until 1991 and ended with the signing of a ceasefire agreement.
The 1991 ceasefire came to an end last year after Morocco resumed military operations in the El Guergarat crossing, a buffer zone between the territory claimed by the state of Morocco and the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which the Polisario said was a provocation.
The issue of Western Sahara has caused growing tensions between Morocco and Algeria, with the latter being accused of supporting the Front's separatist ambitions.
Morocco, which claims the Western Sahara as its own, agreed to re-establish ties with Israel in 2020, as part of the Abraham Accords, part of which included US-recognition of the kingdom's sovereignty over the territory.
Last year Algeria severed diplomatic relations with Rabat, citing "a series of hostile attitudes and trends". Diplomatic tensions have also emerged between Spain and Algeria, after the former shifted its position by supporting Morocco's "autonomy plan" for Western Sahara. Algeria has recently threatened to cut its gas supplies to Spain if it re-exports them to Morocco.