Western Sahara clashes threaten UN talks between Morocco, separatists

Violence on the North Africa coast comes as Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front begin informal talks at the United Nations in New York over the disputed Western Sahara.

Alvaro Barrientos/AP
Saharan people protest against the attack on Monday to a refugee protest camp in the long-disputed territory of Western Sahara, in front of the Morocco Embassy in Spain, Madrid, on Nov. 8.

Deadly clashes continued for a second day Tuesday in Western Sahara as Moroccan troops tried suppressing antigovernment protests waged by the indigenous Sahrawi population.

It is the worst violence since the Moroccan government first occupied the Western Saharan territory 35 years ago, and started only hours before Moroccan officials started a new round of informal talks at the United Nations in New York with the pro-independence Polisario Front, which claims the disputed territory as a homeland under the name of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. It has an exiled government in Algeria, its patron.

Moroccan authorities say four policemen and one firefighter were killed by rioting protestors in the past two days, with only one civilian casualty. Meanwhile, the Polisario Front said 11 civilians have been killed, 723 have been injured, and 159 are unaccounted for.

Analysts say that Moroccan authorities provoked the clashes to derail talks that began on the same day in New York.

“This is just to add yet another issue to the negotiations, to stall,” says Anna Badia Martí, an internal law professor in the Universidad de Barcelona. “It’s their way of indefinitely delaying the process. The occupying force always benefits from a protracted process.”

Contested region

Moroccan authorities are preventing foreign media from reaching the vast, mineral-rich, and largely uninhabited swath of mostly desert land on the Atlantic Ocean. It was Spain’s last colony before it precipitously withdrew in 1975, allowing Morocco to occupy it peacefully. After years of guerrilla war, the Polisario was mostly defeated after Morocco built a huge wall splitting the territory in two, denying the rebels access to the coast.

A UN-brokered cease-fire was signed in 1991 with the promise of a referendum to decide whether the region should become an independent nation. But Morocco has wrenched efforts for a negotiated solution, effectively annexing its half and leaving the Polisario with a huge landlocked Sahara desert.

There are conflicting reports about the number of deaths in and around Laayoune. Morocco considers the coastal city the heart of its Southern Provinces, while the Polisario Front claims it as the capital of a future independent state.

A fragile cease-fire

Clashes broke out early Monday when Moroccan police, backed by helicopters and water guns, stormed a tent camp in the outskirts of Laayoune set up early in October by about 20,000 Sahrawis to demand Morocco improve services and provide greater autonomy.

Dozens of tents were set ablaze during Monday's raid, sparking riots in the tent camp and nearby Laayoune. Reports of clashes continue, although Moroccan authorities said its forces have full control of the city under curfew.

The Monitor could not get independent confirmation of either report.

Northern Africa is strategically and economically critical to Western interests. France, Morocco’s former colonial power with veto power in the UN Security Council, has long supported the government in the capital of Rabat. The United States and Spain have sought a neutral line, favoring the status quo.

But the Polisario has threatened to break the cease-fire following this week’s violence, raising alarms in Europe and Washington, which have called for calm.

“We’ve never been this close to war,” said Becharaya Beyún, the Polisario’s delegate in Spain, on Tuesday. If foreign powers don’t intervene, “we will resort to all legal instruments, and in this case a return to hostilities is closer than ever.”

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