New Violence Reported in Western Sahara

RABAT, Morocco -- New clashes erupted Tuesday in the Western Sahara between Moroccan security forces and local people seeking independence for the vast, resource-rich desert region, activists said.

The Polisario Front independence movement accused Morocco's government of provoking the territory's worst violence in decades in order to derail U.N.-sponsored talks on the future of Western Sahara. The arid section of northwest Africa has teeming coastal fishing grounds and valuable deposits of phosphate, a mineral used widely to make everything from fertilizer to photocopier toner.

Violence exploded Monday after Moroccan forces raided a tent camp set up by the native Saharawi outside of the regional capital Laayoune to protest discrimination and deprivation at the hands of the Moroccan government.

The city is populated mainly by Moroccan settlers as a result of the Rabat government's drive to assert control over the former Spanish territory, which it occupied when Spain left in 1975 after nearly a century of colonial rule. The Polisario declared independence in 1976 on behalf of the nomadic Saharawi, who have their own Arabic dialect and distinct culture.

The dispute is one of the world's longest unresolved conflicts.

Morocco's official MAP news agency said four security officials were killed in Monday's operation at the camp, and one was stabbed to death elsewhere. About two dozen other security agents were hospitalized, it said.

The Polisario Front said 11 Saharawis died in the raid on the tent city and rioting that spread to the capital, Laayoune. It said 723 people were hurt, with another 159 people unaccounted for.
Morocco's government made no comment Tuesday and neither side's figures could be independently confirmed because the government did not allow foreign media access to the region.

The Polisario Front's representative in Madrid said violence broke out again Tuesday in two sections of Laayoune after Moroccan police detained large numbers of people in the city.

Bucharaya Beyun said he learned of the clashes from associates in Laayoune. Isabel Terraza, a Spanish activist who is in the city, told The Associated Press by telephone that there were more clashes under way. She said large numbers of soldiers and police were patrolling the city.

Informal talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front were scheduled to take place Monday near New York City and went ahead anyway, because the Polisario did not want to play into Morocco's hands, Beyun said. Another session was scheduled for Tuesday.

"With what it did yesterday Morocco wanted the negotiations to break down and thought we would not attend the negotiations. It wanted us to take the blame for the talks breaking down," Beyun said. "It wanted us to pay for the consequences of a breakdown, but we attended." He had no information on what happened at the talks.

Bernabe Lopez, a North Africa expert at Autonomous University in Madrid, wrote Tuesday in the newspaper El Pais that with the raid on the camp "Morocco has consciously wrecked the negotiations in New York, losing all credibility in its drive for a realistic solution by offering autonomy."

Laayoune is about 30 percent Saharawi, while the rest of its residents are native Moroccans that the government has moved there.

Tension has been rife since a 1991 U.N-negotiated cease-fire that ended a 16-year guerrilla war between the Polisario and the North African kingdom.

The enmity strains relations between Morocco and Algeria, which harbors Saharawi refugee camps and backs the Polisario bid for a U.N.-sponsored referendum on the status of the territory. Previous bids to hold a referendum have fallen through due to disputes on whether native Moroccans should be allowed to vote in a referendum.

During the last round of informal talks in February, neither side budged and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in April that he saw no prospect of resolving the dispute in the foreseeable future.

For Morocco, Western Sahara's status as part of the national territory is a near-sacred subject -- like the king and Islam -- leaving little room for debate. Moroccan newspapers on Tuesday roundly applauded the police intervention at the camp and in Laayoune.