“Intifada” erupts in Western Sahara

Clashes between Moroccan security forces and Saharawi demonstrators have broken out in towns across Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, following the violent repression of pro-independence protests. Saharawi human rights activists say that nineteen people are missing in police custody, including one whole family, and that a young demonstrator was raped by Moroccan security forces.

Protests broke out May 24 following the alleged mistreatment and transfer to Morocco of a Saharawi political prisoner, Haddi Elkainan. Further demonstrations and repression, spreading across the occupied territories, gave way to Moroccan security forces attacking Saharawi neighborhoods, cutting telephone and electricity cables, and conducting raids on the homes of activists, according to Saharawi protestors. Injured protesters are afraid to go to hospitals, and emergency clinics have been set up in the homes of sympathisers. Some 30 Saharawi are said to be seriously injured, including children.

Western Sahara Campaign UK coordinator Tom Marchbanks said “The UN, through its peacekeeping mission on the ground, and the UK government through its contacts with Morocco, should intervene urgently to protect the human rights of civilians in Western Sahara. It also makes it more clear than ever that the UN must hold the referendum of self-determination for the Saharawis as soon as possible: to leave the Saharawis to the mercy of the Moroccan state is totally unacceptable.” (Western Sahara Campaign UK press release, May 27)

The violence comes just as a key regional summit of the five-nation Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), slated for Tripoli, has been cancelled because of the three-decade dispute between Morocco and Algeria over Western Sahara. “After consultations and contacts between the foreign ministers of the five UMA member countries, it has been decided to postpone the summit indefinitely,” the Libyan Foreign Ministry said.

The cancellation followed an announcement by Morocco’s King Mohammed on May 22 that he would not attend. In the statement, he criticized Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for reiterating Algeria’s support for the independence movement in Western Sahara.

The row between Morocco and Algeria has long paralyzed the UMA. The grouping — which brings together Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia — was formed in 1989 but has not met since 1994.

Algeria and Morocco have been at odds for decades over the large phosphate-rich desert, which Morocco annexed after colonial power Spain pulled out in 1975. Morocco claims Algeria continues to back the Polisario Front guerillas who took up arms to fight for independence the following year. The United Nations brokered a 1991 cease-fire, but there has been no progress on a UN plan to give the territory autonomy during a five-year transition period before a referendum on independence.(AFP, May 25; CNN, May 24)

The Polisario Front’s self-declared Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic has recently asserted its sovereignty over local energy resources by promulgating an international licensing round to cover 12 oil exploration blocks in the Atlantic Ocean off the disputed territory. (Oil & Gas Journal, May 27)

See our last post on Western Sahara.