MADRID – Thousands of people demonstrated in Madrid on Saturday against Morocco's recent crackdown that has left at least 10 people dead in the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara in northwestern Africa.
Many protesters blamed Spain for not taking a firmer stance against what they see as human rights abuses by Morocco's police and army in the territory.
Demonstration organizers said in a statement that the Moroccan government had sent in soldiers and police to quash local demands for better working and social conditions to mark the 35th anniversary of the territory's annexation by Morocco.
Among those protesting on Saturday was Hollywood actor Javier Bardem, as well as Spanish lawmakers and other political, civil rights and trade union leaders.
"There's a lot of people here as you can tell, just to condemn the violation of human rights in Sahara and to try to make the international community and especially the government of Spain understand that diplomacy is about human rights," Bardem said.
Protesters marched about a mile (2 kilometers) from Atocha railway station to downtown Sol square carrying banners saying "Morocco out of the Sahara, 35 years of occupation is enough" and "Free Sahara."
Western Sahara is a mineral-rich former Spanish colony that Morocco marched into and occupied when Spain withdrew in 1975, leaving a power vacuum.
Local Saharawi people have long campaigned for the right to self-determination. but most Moroccans now view the territory as a part of their kingdom.
"The reason for this protest is to ask our government, as former occupying power of Western Sahara, to resolve this conflict," said Juan Carlos Caballero, 46, president of the North Madrid association of friends of the Saharawi people.
Banners from many parts of Spain could be seen at the demonstration which also included live music and street performers dressed in the red, green, black and white of the traditional Saharawi flag.
The Moroccan-controlled territory's main city, Laayoune, is reported to be tense and overrun by police and heavily-armed troops following riots there Monday after Moroccan forces raided the crowded protest camp.