RABAT: Bloody clashes erupted between police and pro-independence protesters in Western Sahara, a human rights group said Monday, as the U.N. envoy wrapped up his latest visit to the disputed territory.
The weekend clashes, in the towns of Laayoune and Smara, coincided with a three-day trip to the territory by Christopher Ross in a new bid to push for a peaceful resolution to the decades-old conflict.
Dozens of civilians required hospital treatment, including women and children, after police moved to break up a “peaceful protest” Saturday evening in Laayoune, the territory’s main city, the Moroccan Human Rights Association (AMDH) said.
“The police violently dispersed protesters and surrounded the residential Maatalla district, breaking into people’s houses and causing a lot of damage,” the independent rights group’s Laayoune representative Hamoud Iguilid told AFP.
Moroccan security forces also wounded 20 civilians Sunday afternoon in Smara, as Ross arrived in the town in the desert interior east of Laayoune for talks with officials and civil society representatives, an AMDH source there said.
But local authorities, cited by the official MAP news agency, contradicted the AMDH’s version of events in Laayoune, saying five members of the security forces were wounded in “acts of vandalism and violence.”
Some 400 people gathered in the city “without permission” and began throwing stones and petrol bombs, according to the authorities, who made no mention of civilian casualties and strongly denied that police had broken into people’s houses.
Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975 in a move never recognized by the international community, while neighboring Algeria backs the pro-independence Polisario Front and hosts Sahrawi refugee camps.
The U.N. special envoy flew to Western Sahara Friday for meetings with local Moroccan officials, tribal chiefs and civil society representatives, both for and against independence.
He had already visited Rabat and the refugee camps in Algeria and left Monday for neighboring Mauritania.
The AMDH said that it urged the U.N. envoy to set up a mechanism for monitoring human rights in both Western Sahara and the Polisario-run refugee camps.
Earlier this year, aggressive international lobbying by Rabat successfully shot down an unprecedented U.S. proposal to task the territory’s U.N. peacekeeping force, known as MINURSO, with human rights monitoring.
Instead, a U.N.S.C. resolution extending the force’s mandate simply stressed the “importance of improving the human rights situation” in Western Sahara and the refugee camps.
In the weeks after the Security Council vote, scores of pro-independence protesters were wounded in clashes with Moroccan security forces in Laayoune and other towns.
A MINURSO spokesman on Monday reported a “massive” Moroccan security presence in Laayoune over the weekend, but declined to comment on or confirm clashes between police and protesters, saying the force was not authorised to do so.
Separately, a representative of the official Moroccan Human Rights Council (CMDH) confirmed that houses were damaged and civilians wounded in Laayoune Saturday night, but gave no further details, saying only that the group planned to investigate the unrest.
Morocco has proposed broad autonomy for Western Sahara under its sovereignty, an initiative rejected by the Polisario Front, which has campaigned for independence since 1973 and which fought Moroccan troops for a decade and half until the United Nations negotiated a cease-fire in 1991.
The Polisario, which still controls a small strip of territory in the desert interior, insists on the Sahrawis’ right to determine their own future in a U.N.-monitored referendum.