News24

Big independence demo in West Sahara

2013-05-06 17:13

Rabat - Hundreds of pro-independence Sahrawi activists marched in Laayoune at the weekend, the Western Sahara's largest city, in the biggest such protest in recent decades, Moroccan newspapers reported on Monday.

Hundreds of people marched peacefully late on Saturday afternoon, but violence broke out in the evening after the protest had ended, with 21 police officials wounded, a witness told AFP.

The clashes in Laayoune between security forces and Sahrawi protesters also resulted in an unknown number of activists wounded, according to Hamoud Iguilid, the local representative of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights.

Other smaller protests took place in Western Sahara towns including Smara on Sunday, with demonstrators carrying the flag of the "Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic," local media reported.

Mohamed Salem Charkaoui from Morocco's official National Human Rights Council, cited by the news website Lakome, said 2 000 people marched in Laayoune.

French-language daily Aujourd'hui Le Maroc described the protest there, which coincided with a visit by a group of US journalists, as "an unprecedented gathering by the enemies of [Morocco's] territorial integrity," citing several sources.

"The largest protest for separation in Laayoune's history," ran the headline of Arabic daily Akhbar al-Youm, which also mentioned the presence of rebel Polisario Front flags and even the stars and stripes of the United States.

Several protests have been held in the disputed territory since the Security Council passed a resolution on 25 April which extended the UN peacekeeping mission for another year but omitted a Washington-backed proposal to broaden its mandate to include rights monitoring.

Morocco, which annexed the former Spanish territory in 1975 in a move never recognised by the international community, lobbied furiously to have the US rights monitoring proposal dropped.

Dozens of protesters were wounded when a pro-independence protest turned violent a day after the UN vote, an Amnesty International representative in Laayoune said, adding that the police used "excessive force" to disperse the protesters.

Morocco has proposed broad autonomy under its sovereignty for the phosphate-rich Western Sahara, but this is rejected by Polisario Front rebels, who took up arms to fight for an independent state until the United Nations negotiated a ceasefire in 1991.

The Polisario insist on the Sahrawis' right to a UN-monitored referendum on self-determination.