Monday, November 8, 2010

Moroccan Forces Raid Protest Camp in Laayoune

Here is an article from National Public Radio about the riots in Laayoune. Is the Sahara Moroccan? Good question.
5 Moroccan Troops, 1 Civilian Killed In W. Sahara

by The Associated Press

RABAT, Morocco November 8, 2010, 06:58 pm ET

Moroccan forces raided a protest camp in the disputed territory of Western Sahara on Monday and unrest spread to a nearby city, with buildings ablaze and rioters roaming the streets. Five Moroccan security officials and one demonstrator were killed, reports said.

Moroccan officials moved into the camp at dawn, reportedly using tear gas and pressure hoses to dismantle it. Once unrest reached the city of Laayoune, Spanish National Television showed black smoke pouring from at least four tall buildings and an explosion that sent flames into the air.

The chaotic scenes capped weeks of simmering tension in Western Sahara, where a local independence movement called the Polisario Front is locked in a conflict with Morocco, which claims the territory.

The unrest also came hours before the reopening of informal U.N.-sponsored talks Monday in Manhasset, New York, between Morocco and the Polisario Front, which long waged a guerrilla war on Morocco in a bid to gain independence for the desert region and its native Saharawi people.

The 35-year conflict over the impoverished territory has dragged on, despite United Nations' attempts to resolve it. Today, thousands of Saharawis live in Polisario-run refugee camps in Algeria, forced out of their homeland by the dispute.

The latest tensions started in mid-October, when some residents of Laayoune set up the Gdim Izik tent camp 10 kilometers (six miles) east of the city to protest poor living conditions. Monday's operation to dismantle it took less than an hour, according to Moroccan radio.

"It was a very forceful intervention," Galia Djimi, a Moroccan human rights activist in Laayoune, told The Associated Press. "People have been beaten. There are injured people."

The British charity group Sandblast described the operation as "brutal." It said the camp "reportedly came under a barrage of tear gas, flames and high temperature pressure hoses."

The Moroccan governor of Laayoune, Mohamed Guelmous, told TV Channel 2M that troops were met with a barrage of incendiary devices when they entered the camp to arrest people he called troublemakers.

Morocco annexed the territory after Spain gave it up in 1975. Today, Morocco refers to the Western Sahara, thought to be rich with minerals, as its "southern provinces." In a bid to settle the dispute, Morocco has proposed autonomy for the territory.

Morocco's official MAP news agency said five security officials were killed Monday — four in the operation at the camp, and one stabbed to death elsewhere — and said about two dozen others were hospitalized.

One protester died and hundreds of native Saharawis were allegedly injured, according to a statement by the Western Sahara government in exile carried by the Sahara Press Service. The government in exile is run by the Polisario Front.

Yet Moroccan officials insisted no civilians were killed in the raid, and the exact death toll was unclear.

The spokesman for the group that set up the camp, Brahim Ahmed, claimed camp residents had killed numerous members of the Moroccan security forces — as many as to 16, he said — by stoning them or running them over with cars. He said an unknown number of camp residents were killed.

Such claims have often varied widely in the conflict, and media access was limited. An AP photographer and several other journalists were prevented from boarding a plane to the area by an official of Moroccan airline Royal Air Maroc.

Schools and offices in Laayoune were closed Monday, and a cloud of black smoke rose above the city. An official in Laayoune told the AP that the local TV station and an office handling regional investments were set ablaze.

Video of the Laayoune protests on the site of the major Spanish radio station showed streets filled with what appeared to be Saharawi men — many with their faces wrapped in cloth according to local custom. They moved chaotically through a street, some waving a Polisario flag, others carrying sticks and bottles.

There was no evidence in the video to match an account of the Laayoune protests carried by the official Moroccan news agency which said that demonstrators waved Moroccan flags, carried portraits of King Mohammed VI and shouted "The Sahara is Moroccan."

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