Western Sahara talks in jeopardy after Moroccan raid

A raid on a Saharawi camp by security forces may revive calls for independence in the disputed region.

In this photo released by the MAP news agency (Maghreb Arabe Presse) shows Moroccan forces dismantle a camp housing thousands of refugees in the Western Sahara, near Laayoune, 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. (AP Photo/MAP/HO) *** Local Caption ***  CAS101_Morocco_Western_Sahara.jpg

RABAT // A raid by Moroccan security forces on thousands of encamped Saharawi protesters in the disputed territory of Western Sahara has unleashed recriminations and anger that may hinder United Nations-led peace talks, analysts said.

Moroccan forces destroyed the camp outside Laayoune, Western Sahara's main city, last Monday, triggering a day of street fighting in which Saharawi demonstrators clashed with police. The camp protesters were demanding housing and state jobs.

Morocco annexed most of Western Sahara after Spanish colonisers withdrew in 1975, sparking a 16-year war with the Algerian-backed Polisario Front independence movement.

Today the Polisario wants a referendum with independence as an option, while Morocco rules that out and proposes autonomy. Talks begun in 2007 have failed to break the impasse.

"What happened [last] week will probably entrench both sides in their positions because it says that Saharawis would likely vote for independence in a referendum," said Jacob Mundy, the co-author of a new book on the Western Sahara conflict.

The raid began hours before Morocco and the Polisario started a new round of talks near New York City. While both have pledged to meet again in December, each has accused the other of seeking to derail the talks.

Morocco's raid on the camp "shows that Morocco has no intention of co-operating with the UN to solve the problem," said Ahmed Boukhari, the Polisario's representative at the UN. "I cannot see Polisario participating in the next talks if there is not a strong response from the UN."

The UN Security Council is to meet tomorrow to discuss the events in Laayoune.

The Polisario wants a UN investigation to assess the number of people killed last week, Mr Boukhari said. Moroccan authorities have put the death toll at 10 policemen and one civilian.

Morocco's communications minister, Khalid Naciri, accused the Polisario of "trying to use the events of Laayoune and a small number of criminals to torpedo the negotiations".

Those events trace back to last month, when Saharawi protesters demanding housing and state jobs began pitching tents outside Laayoune. The encampment swelled to about 8,000 tents, according to camp organisers interviewed during a recent visit.

While Morocco's government has developed Western Sahara and enticed Moroccans to live there, Saharawi protesters said they were excluded from the territory's large public sector.

The camp organisers insisted that their demands were strictly socioeconomic. However, many protesters said privately that they also supported independence for Western Sahara.

Three weeks ago, the Moroccan army surrounded the camp, while police and gendarmerie set up checkpoints to control access. Last Monday, security forces razed the camp to the ground.

Morocco's interior ministry said that the camp was dismantled to arrest people inside wanted for crimes or for trying to politicise the protesters' demands.

As protesters fled into Laayoune, police took control of the city and sealed access to Saharawi neighbourhoods where street demonstrations erupted. Mr Naciri, the communications minister, said that police acted to contain violence engineered by "a small number of hooligans exploited by the Polisario".

However, Saharawi anger at Moroccan authorities is likely to grow, said Yahia Zoubir, an expert on Maghreb affairs.

"Morocco has not succeeded in winning Saharawi hearts and minds," he said. "The latest events are only going to radicalise youth in Western Sahara."

Plumes of black smoke from bonfires rose over Saharawi neighbourhoods of Laayoune last Monday, as helicopters circled above and the thud of tear-gas canons reverberated across the city.

"In the morning I went to demonstrate at a police checkpoint because the Moroccans had beaten our mothers and sisters," said Khattari, 21, an unemployed Saharawi who was in Laayoune when news arrived that the camp was destroyed. He asked that his full name not be published.

"Maybe Moroccans and Saharawis can live together one day, but only after we get independence," Khattari said. "Now, we're at war."