RABAT: Plainclothes Moroccan police violently broke up a peaceful pro-independence protest in the Western Sahara city of Laayoune after a visit by a British MP, a prominent Moroccan rights group said Monday.
About 100 activists, including women, gathered on Saturday evening in the neighbourhood of Maatallah, despite police efforts to block the protest, according to Hamoud Iguilid from the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH).
"All the citizens who tried to protest were attacked by the police, and especially plainclothes police," he told AFP, speaking by phone from Laayoune, adding that he had not been informed of any serious injuries.
The protesters were demanding the release of political prisoners and an extension of the UN peacekeeping force's mandate to include human rights monitoring.
They were attacked after a car carrying British MP Jeremy Corbyn and a member of the AMDH had left the area, Iguilid said.
Corbyn chairs a British parliamentary group dedicated to raising concerns about Western Sahara, and he was visiting the region with a delegation of British politicians and a rights campaigner.
Moroccan authorities could not immediately be reached for comment.
The deputy regional director of Human Rights Watch, Eric Goldstein, who was in Laayoune at the time, confirmed that more than 100 uniformed and plainclothes police had tried to prevent the protest.
"Twice as I tried to approach, plainclothes officers turned me back 'for my own protection,'" Goldstein said, adding that the governor of Laayoune later accused the visiting British delegation of trying to incite the protesters to riot.
Morocco controls most of Western Sahara, which it began annexing in 1975 in a move never recognised by the international community, and which it considers an integral part of its territory.
The Algeria-backed Polisario Front rejects Rabat's proposal of wide autonomy for the former Spanish colony and has campaigned for independence since 1973, fighting Moroccan troops for a decade and a half until the United Nations negotiated a ceasefire in 1991.
Morocco has vowed to invest heavily in Western Sahara to boost development and create jobs.
But the government has increasingly come in for criticism over human rights violations in the disputed territory, where separatist protests are not tolerated.