Polisario asks world to intervene after what it calls repression by Morocco

The Polisario Front, the group seeking independence for Western Sahara, has accused the Moroccan government of ferocious repression following disturbances this month and has called on the international community to intervene and protect civilians.

Trouble broke out in the main city of the disputed desert territory, Laayoune, last week. The Moroccan authorities say the Polisario instigated politically motivated riots; the independence movement counters that the demonstrations were peaceful protests against Morocco's occupation.

"The riots had been organised with a political agenda," the governor of the affected province, Mohamed El Rharabi, was quoted as saying in Moroccan newspapers.

The senior government official said the trigger for the unrest had been the transfer of a prisoner from a jail in Laayoune to one in Morocco, and not to a Polisario camp as the inmate had requested. The Moroccan flag had been burnt and people had brandished Polisario flags, he added.

"We have arrested 33 people including two women," El Rharabi said.

But the Polisario disputed this version of events, saying that people had staged peaceful demonstrations against Morocco's intransigence in the long-running dispute, and that the security forces had then stepped in barbarically.

"The repression by the Moroccan authorities which is still going on has left 57 people injured, seven of them seriously, dozens of people under arrest, many others missing... and dozens of houses completely sacked," the Polisario said in a letter to the United Nations written on Sunday.

"The violation of civil and political rights... demands a firm reaction from the whole international community," said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by IRIN. "Every day that the world delays means added suffering for the civilian population."

Agence France Presse reported that Morocco was opening an inquiry into the clashes. But the Polisario said it wanted an international probe into the recent disturbances and foreign observers and journalists to come to the territory.

Western Sahara, a 266,000 square km piece of desert tucked between Mauritania and Morocco, has been at the centre of a sovereignty dispute since Spain relinquished its colonial grip in 1975.

The next 16 years were marked by a low-intensity war between Rabat and the Polisario until a ceasefire agreement was signed in 1991.

No political resolution is in sight though and 165,000 Western Sahara refugees are still living in camps in neighbouring Algeria, while some 300,000 people remain in the disputed territory, according to the UN.

An official for the UN mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO), which has spent more than US $600 million trying to settle the dispute since the ceasefire, said that this month's unrest was the most serious in six years.

Increase in tension

Tensions over Western Sahara had already been rising this month.

Last week, the first North African heads of state summit scheduled in over a decade was scrapped when Morocco reacted angrily to Algeria's reiteration of its support for the Polisario.

And at the beginning of the month, the Polisario's chief negotiator, Emhamed Khadad, told Reuters news agency that the independence movement was considering resuming its armed struggle if there was no breakthrough in UN-led peace talks in the next six months.

The UN Security Council recently extended MINURSO's mandate until the end of October, urging the two sides to find a way of ending the standoff.

"The stalemate in this long-standing conflict has left tens of thousands of Saharan refugees living in deplorable conditions, relying for their survival on the generosity of the international community," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote in his latest report in April.

"It is therefore my sincere hope that all concerned will show the necessary political will to break the current deadlock," he went on.

"In the meantime, both parties must refrain from inflammatory statements or taking any action, including legal, political, or military, which would have the effect of further complicating the search for a solution or cause unnecessary friction."

The current deal on the table provides for Western Sahara to be given self-rule for a period of four to five years. After that, its long-term residents and the refugees in Algerian camps would vote in a referendum to choose whether the territory is to be fully integrated with Morocco, continue to have autonomy within the Moroccan state, or become independent.

The plan has been accepted by the Polisario movement, but rejected by Morocco.

Former US Secretary of State James Baker resigned as the UN special envoy to the Western Sahara a year ago after trying to broker a political settlement for seven years without success.

Earlier this month the head of MINURSO, Alvaro de Soto, also moved on to pastures new to become the UN's special envoy to the Middle East. A replacement has not yet been announced.