U.N. asked to investigate violence in Western Sahara

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 16, 2010; 11:28 AM

UNITED NATIONS - Western Sahara's national liberation movement demanded Monday that the U.N. Security Council launch a probe into clashes last week between Moroccan authorities and Western Saharan protesters, arguing that it is essential to "establish an authoritative account" of the most violent episode in years in the disputed territory.

The move comes one week after Moroccan authorities bulldozed a temporary encampment that housed 12,000 to 20,000 Saharawi protesters on the outskirts of Laayoune. The authorities blasted the compound with water canons and severely beat protesters, triggering anti-Moroccan riots and reprisal attacks by Moroccan security officials against civilians.

The bloody incident outside the Moroccan-controlled city of Laayoune in Western Sahara drew international attention to a remote conflict that generates scant press coverage in the United States. U.N. special envoy Christopher Ross, who is overseeing political talks between the two sides in New York this week, is scheduled to brief the Security Council Tuesday in a special session on the latest spasm of violence. He is to be joined by a senior U.N. peacekeeping official.

Shortly after Spain ended its colonial rule of Western Sahara in 1975, Morocco annexed the territory, thwarting the locals' aspiration to join scores of other African countries declaring independence. The Frente Polisario, which is backed by Algeria, has led the territory's struggle for self-rule. But Morocco - with backing from France - has effectively fended off efforts for the group's recognition on the world stage.

Determining what happened in and around Laayoune has been thwarted by Morocco's refusal to provide access to the area to most U.N. peacekeepers, journalists, diplomats and human rights experts, said U.N.-based officials and diplomats.

Ahmed Boukari, the Frente Polisario's U.N. representative, characterized the crackdown as a "massacre," citing reports from locals that at least 36 civilians have been killed in the melee. Morocco maintains that 12 died, including 10 security officials killed by protesters and rioters.

Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, largely supported the government's estimates on the death toll, suggesting that Polisario's numbers might be inflated.

"As far as we know, there is one confirmed death of a civilian, and possibly a second who died in a hospital," Bouckaert said in a telephone interview from Laayoune.

Boukaert said there were rumors that dozens of bodies were being held in military morgues but that interviews with local residents did not support such allegations. "Our evidence gathered suggest a much lower civilian death toll, but it is precisely for this reason that journalists and investigators should have unimpeded access to Laayoune."

He also said confusion over the events highlights the need for the U.N. peacekeeping mission to establish a unit to monitor human rights violations in Western Sahara. Several countries, including Austria and Mexico, pressed the council last year to set up a human rights monitoring unit in the peacekeeping mission to track such abuses. The measure was blocked by France, Morocco's closest ally in the council.

The Saharawis set up the tent city in Gdemi Izik outside Laayoune several months ago to protest the dire social conditions in Western Sahara, including high unemployment, lack of subsidies for the elderly or access to jobs for college graduates. Talks between Moroccan authorities and the protesters broke down.

On Nov. 8, several hundred Moroccan security forces surrounded the camp and advanced in armored cars to dismantle it. Rioting quickly spread from the camp, where one police officer and a fireman were killed, along the road to Laayoune, where two more police were stabbed to death at police station, according to Bouckaert.

The violence escalated in Laayoune amid rumors, apparently untrue, that Moroccan forces had opened fire on civilians in the camps, killing scores. Inside Laayoune, another six Moroccan security forces were killed, including one who had his throat cut, as angry protesters and their supporters rampaged, burning government buildings, he said.

By late Monday afternoon, Moroccan police and military sought revenge, ransacking homes in Saharawi neighborhoods, beating residents and detaining more than 100, many of whom were severely beaten, Bouckaert said.

Bouckaert expressed concern about the treatment of the detained, including six who were charged with crimes by a military court in Rabat, Morocco.

"We saw the bruises of some of the men and women who have been released," he said. "Many people were injured in the camp and in the city, but most of them were too afraid to go to the hospital to seek treatment. On Monday, the police blocked the entrance to the main hospital and beat up Saharawi wounded who arrived, and even the taxi drivers who brought them."

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