Algiers - Moroccan police violently dispersed a protest by separatists in the Western Sahara, Algerian TV and rights activists reported on Monday, during a visit to the disputed territory by the UN envoy Christopher Ross.
The independent Ennahar TV channel broadcast images of plainclothes Moroccan police beating Sahrawi men and women in Laayoune, chasing them through the streets and dragging some of them along the ground.
"The police violently dispersed Sahrawi activists who attempted to stage a protest demanding the independence of the Western Sahara," an unidentified activist was quoted as saying.
Mahmoud Iguilid, the Laayoune representative of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, confirmed the violent suppression of Sahrawi activists, which he said took place on Saturday, before a planned protest to coincide with Ross's visit.
"Plainclothes police beat up the activists, many of them women, to prevent the protest. It happens every time there is a visit by a UN or human rights official," he told AFP, adding that security in the region had been heavily reinforced.
Ross flew to Laayoune on Friday for a four-day visit to the disputed region, only his second since being appointed in 2009, aimed at reviving direct peace talks between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front separatists.
Speaking in Rabat on Thursday after meeting top Moroccan officials, Ross said a solution to the decades-old conflict was "more urgent than ever," in view of the heightened insecurity across the Sahel region.
The UN envoy travelled on Sunday to Dakhla, 500km south of Laayoune, and was due to leave the territory and head to Algeria's western Tindouf region on Monday to visit the Sahrawi refugees camps there.
Morocco said last year that it no longer had confidence in Ross but later agreed to support the US diplomat, who said on arrival in Laayoune that he hoped "to meet with as broad a selection of interlocutors as possible".
Morocco and the Polisario Front have held numerous rounds of UN-hosted informal talks on the Western Sahara, but Ross halted these last year with both sides refusing to make concessions.
Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975, in a move not recognised by the international community, and has proposed broad autonomy for the phosphate-rich territory under its sovereignty.
But this is rejected by the Polisario Front, which insists on the right of the Sahrawi people to a referendum on self-determination and launched its struggle for independence even before the annexation.
A guerrilla war lasted until 1991 when the United Nations brokered a ceasefire, but a permanent settlement remains elusive.