RABAT: Moroccan police violently suppressed a peaceful protest in the Western Sahara against a planned EU fishing accord with Rabat that covers the disputed territory's waters, witnesses said Monday.
About 50 demonstrators, many of them women, gathered in the Laayoune city centre on Saturday evening carrying banners and chanting slogans, including "stop taking our resources," one witness told AFP by phone.
The protesters were heavily outnumbered by police, who attacked them with batons, beating and injuring many of them, said Hamoud Iguilid from the Moroccan association of human rights, who was also present.
Women and children were among the injured, but no arrests were reported.
Unverifiable video footage posted on the Internet showed the police snatching placards held by the protesters and severely beating them.
The protest comes ahead of a vote in the European parliament on Tuesday to ratify a new four-year fishing accord with Morocco, which would allow more than 120 EU fishing boats, most of them Spanish, to access the waters of Morocco and Western Sahara.
The European parliament refused to extend the previous accord in December 2011, saying it did not sufficiently taking into account the interests of the people of the Western Sahara, which Morocco annexed in 1975 in a move never recognised by the international community.
Moroccan exploitation of the territory's natural resources, notably its phosphate reserves, has been a key issue in the dispute with the Polisario Front, which fought for independence until a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991.
"The Sahrawi community is boiling over with frustration vis-à-vis the EU," said Erik Hagen, who heads Western Sahara Resource Watch, an international lobby group.
"According to international law and a legal opinion by the UN, the people of the territory must consent to deals in the territory of Western Sahara... The EU accord would be a slap in the face for human rights and peace in Western Sahara," he added.
If ratified, the new accord would see Morocco receiving 40 million euros in financial aid annually.
The EU would pay 16 million euros in compensation for access to its waters, and another 14 million euros to support the country's fisheries sector, while the European shipowners would pay Morocco 10 million euros.
Rabat has vowed to invest heavily in Western Sahara in order to boost development and create jobs.
But the government has increasingly come in for criticism over human rights violations in the disputed territory, which it considers an integral part of its territory, and where separatist protests are not tolerated.
A UN working group on arbitrary detention began a ten-day visit to Morocco on Monday, during which it is scheduled to visit Laayoune.