Laayoune is today a city in flames. The Sahara conflict, latent for years, has exploded. The people of the Saharawi, who have spent decades fighting for greater rights in their area, peacefully since the 1991 ceasefire, have raised up against the Moroccan army after the violent eviction of the protest camp ‘Gdeim Izik’. The area is, technically, a Spanish colony, but to all intents and purposes forms part of Morocco.
The battle has left several dead on the road and many injured, although the figures vary according to the sources of information. The Ambassador of the Sahrawi Arabian Democratic Republic in Algeria, Brahim Ghali, has assured told the Spanish government that he can only confirm one death in the Western Sahara, despite earlier reports that up to 13 Sahrawi died during the camp clearence. The dead man is a young Saharawi of 26 years, Babi Mahmud el Gargar, who died in the taking over of the camp, according to a report from the Polisario Front, the independence group fighting for Sahrawi rights, who also released the photo that accompanies this story, of Mr el Gargar’s body.
However, Sahrawi sources in Laayoune (still called by its colonial name of El Aaiún in Spanish) speak of four bodies in the camp, including a minor. Meanwhile, the Polisario Front representative in Spain, Bucharaya Beyun, raised the total to 13 dead.
Moreover, according to Gali, there are 70 detainees, 80 injured (whose severity is unknown) and several missing, and he said he does not know if there are more fatalities.
For its part, the Moroccan government has announced that five agents of law enforcement (one of them stoned to death and another burnt alive) were killed during the operation of dismantling the protest camp, located 15 kilometers from Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara.
An agent of the Moroccan Royal Gendarmerie and one of the Auxiliary Forces (under the Ministry of Interior) died late in the afternoon in hospital of wounds sustained in the dismantling of the Saharawi camp. Also, according to official news agency MAP, there are nearly 60 wounded among the security forces.A city in flames as the population riots
Civilians have erected barricades in Laayoune and now clashes are occurring between groups of youths and the security forces.
“The people of El Aaiun are out on the streets and have raised barricades. The streets are shattered and there is a huge cloud of smoke hanging over the town. The city is in flames,” said Isabel Terraza, a Spanish national involved in the Sahrawi resistance movement and who had been in the camp today.
It all started around 7 am Monday morning when the Moroccan army began forcibly dismantle the protest camp ‘Gdeim Izik‘, erected by 20,000 Sahrawi’s asking for improvements in their social and economic conditions. It was the biggest protest in the country since Spain abandoned it’s former colony in 1975.
From a helicopter, the security forces warned the Moroccan population by loudspeaker to leave the camp. Later, they used trucks to spray the tents with hot water, tear gas and set fire to part of the camp.
“The camp is gone. They have destroyed all the tents. There is no one left standing there. Soldiers violently entered and beat people,” Isabel reported via mobile phone, one of four Spaniards in the Western Sahara.
After the dismantling of the camp, the population of the camp retreated back to Laayoune and moved the resistance there. Moroccan security forces have been searching “every house” in certain neighborhoods in Laayoune and are arming the Moroccan settlers living in the area.
Sahrawi sources say that the Moroccan officials are shooting at them from their vehicles and then pick them up and put them in trucks. “They are attacking everyone, children, women, men, elders. It’s a melee against all Saharawi citizens. They are destroying their tents and part of the settlement is burning. Women are terrified, but do not want to flee because they fear that their husbands will die, that they will kill their children” from a spokeswoman for the Sahara group Thawra.
According to two of the main Moroccan Associations in Western Sahara, “hundreds of civilians [Moroccan] have joined police agents against Sahrawi activists” in the city. According to the Moroccan police, in the clashes in Laayoune “several members of the security forces have been wounded.” The prefect of police in Laayoune, Mohamed Djisi denied that there had been civilian casualties in the fighting.The most serious civil unrest in Morocco’s history
Today is the most serious incident in the Western Sahara, after the ceasefire of September 1991 which ended the fighting between Morocco and the Frente Polisario independence group.
The Saharawi protest camp was erected only three weeks ago. More than 25,000 Sahrawi arrived and erected some 7,500 tents in which to live. Their demands were socioeconomic in nature, although many residents did not hide their links with the Saharawi cause. Until now, the moment of maximum tension occurred last Oct. 24 when a young Saharawi, 14, was shot by the Moroccan army when he tried to enter the camp.
Interestingly, a year ago, the Spanish Government also saw a conflict with Morocco when the Sahrawi activist Haidar embarresed Zapatero’s government by carrying out a hunger strike in Lanzarote airport after being refused entry into Morocco. After a month on hunger strike, Haidar was finally able to land at Laayoune after arduous negotiations between Spain and Rabat. In the agreement between both countries, the Spanish government recognized that Moroccan law prevailed in the Sahara.Planned UN negotiations go ahead in New York
El-Aaiún (also transliterated “Laâyoune” or “El Ayun”; lit. “The Springs”), is a city in Western Sahara founded by the Spanish in 1928. Administered by Morocco since 1976, El-Aaiún is the capital of what the Moroccan government calls the region of Laâyoune-Boujdour-Sakia El Hamra, and which the Polisario Front calls the “Occupied Territories”. It is also claimed by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic as their capital.
The government in exile is run by the Polisario Front, which for decades waged a guerrilla war on Morocco in a bid to gain independence for the desert region and its native Saharawi people.
Morocco annexed the territory after Spain gave it up in 1975. Today, Morocco refers to the Western Sahara, thought to be rich with minerals, as its “southern provinces.” In a bid to finally settle the dispute, Morocco has proposed autonomy for the territory.
Monday’s unrest began hours before the reopening of informal U.N.-sponsored talks Monday in Manhasset, New York, between Morocco and the Polisario Front.
The 35-year-old conflict over the impoverished territory has dragged on despite United Nations’ attempts to resolve it. Today, thousands of Saharawis live in Polisario-run refugee camps in Algeria, forced out of their homeland by the dispute.
Despite the destruction of the camp and the unrest, UN sponsored talks between Rabat and the Polisario Front eventually started as scheduled this evening in New York.