Tensions in Western Sahara boil over, could derail talks

Shortly before talks began in the US on Western Sahara, Morocco authorities raided a protest camp in the region, possibly undermining talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front, which wants a referendum on independence.

Alvaro Barrientos/AP
Saharan women protest in front of the Morocco Embassy in Spain, Madrid, Monday, Nov. 8, 2010. At least three Moroccan security officials were killed and 70 injured Monday in a raid on a protest camp in the disputed territory of Western Sahara and unrest that then spread to a nearby city, where several buildings were set on fire.

Two and a half weeks ago, Christian Science Monitor correspondent Drew Hinshaw warned us that the Western Sahara, headed toward peace talks but plagued by conflict, was poised to “heat up.” This week we are seeing the fulfillment of that forecast, as opportunity and crisis confront the region.

First, the opportunity:

UN-mediated talks on Western Sahara’s future began outside New York yesterday. The starting positions are the Moroccan government’s preference for Western Saharan autonomy, and the Polisario Front’s desire for a referendum on full independence for the region. Commentators Anna Theofilopoulou and Jacob Mundy find cause for hope in the talks, writing that active American, French, and Spanish involvement could help bring about a resolution after thirty-five years of strife. Edward Gabriel and Robert Holley, who served in Morocco under the Clinton administration, disagree with Theofilopoulou and Mundy on the specifics but also see a path toward peace. A lot of knowledgeable observers, in other words, believe the talks could, under the right circumstances, bear fruit.

Crisis, however, has already cast a shadow over the talks. Yesterday, even before representatives of Morocco and the Polisario came together in New York, Moroccan forces raided a “protest camp” near Laayoune in Western Sahara.

The latest tensions started in mid-October, when some residents of Laayoune set up the Gdim Izik tent camp 10 kilometers (six miles) east of the city to protest poor living conditions. Monday’s operation to dismantle it took less than an hour, according to Moroccan radio.


Morocco’s official MAP news agency said five security officials were killed Monday — four in the operation at the camp, and one stabbed to death elsewhere — and said about two dozen others were hospitalized.One protester died and hundreds of native Saharawis were allegedly injured, according to a statement by the Western Sahara government in exile carried by the Sahara Press Service. The government in exile is run by the Polisario Front.

Yet Moroccan officials insisted no civilians were killed in the raid, and the exact death toll was unclear.

The BBC has more on the clash.

The raid has already affected the tenor of the meetings in New York. Reuters quotes a worried UN official:

“It is highly unfortunate that this operation and the events preceding and following it have affected the atmosphere in which these talks are being held,” UN spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters.

“We call on all parties involved to exercise the utmost restraint in the hours and days to come.”

The US and the other powers that have brought Morocco and the Polisario to the table are going to be loath to give up now. But they may be in for disappointment. The talks seem to be going forward, though it also seems that yesterday’s events dented the prospects for success. If the stalemate continues, crisis will have triumphed over opportunity at this pivotal moment.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student of Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and he blogs at Sahel Blog.

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