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STUTTGART, Germany — Just days after touching down on Moroccan soil for a large-scale military exercise, U.S. troops are packing up their gear following a sudden decision by Moroccan officials on Tuesday to call off the annual training event.

About 1,400 U.S. servicemembers were slated to take part in the two-week African Lion exercise, one of Africa Command’s largest annual training events on the continent.

“We’re in the process of redeploying,” said Capt. Lauren Schulz, a Marine Corps spokeswoman. “African Lion 13 has been suspended.”

AFRICOM declined to cite a reason for the change, referring questions to the Moroccan government. But an Associated Press report said the event was cancelled due to Moroccan anger with the Obama administration over its support for having the U.N. monitor human rights in a territorial dispute over the territory of Western Sahara.

Morocco occupied the desert region in 1976 unleashing a decades-long guerrilla struggle by the indigenous Polisario Front group, which ended with a U.N. cease-fire in 1991. Since then talks between the two sides have remained stalemated, with Polisario insisting on an independence referendum and Morocco proposing autonomy for the mineral-rich former Spanish colony.

Earlier this month, the Military Sealift Command’s USNS Dahl, a cargo transport vessel, pulled into a Moroccan port to deliver more than 250 short tons of equipment for the exercise. Marines disembarked everything from 7-ton trucks, armored Humvees and howitzers to Meals, Ready to Eat. Now, all that gear must be reloaded.

“We had a plan to redeploy, so we just accelerated the timeline,” Schulz said.

In addition to the 1,400 U.S. troops, about 900 Royal Moroccan Armed Forces were to take part in military drills focused on a wide range of activities. Months in the planning, Africa Lion involves live-fire and maneuvering exercises, amphibious operations and aerial refueling and low-level flight training.

Observers from Germany and 12 other European and African countries also were slated to attend.

Marines managed to get in some training with their Moroccan partners during the initial offloading phase of the exercise, which was to formally commence on Wednesday, Schulz said.

While African Lion 13 is cancelled, the longstanding exercises will likely continue in the future, according to AFRICOM officials.

“The Moroccan government has deferred the exercise to a later date,” said Tom Saunders, an AFRICOM spokesman, in a statement. “The U.S. and Moroccan militaries remain long-standing partners. We hope to continue to build our partnership through future military engagements with the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces, as directed by U.S. Africa Command and the United States Government.”

vandiver.john@stripes.com

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.
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