Q&A: Western Sahara clashes

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Several people have been killed in Western Sahara in violent clashes between Moroccan security forces and protesters.

What is Western Sahara?

It is a disputed territory on the north-west corner of Africa, on the western edge of the Sahara Desert, where it meets the Atlantic Ocean - not far from the Canary Islands.

Morocco says it governed the region before colonial rule and is therefore part of its territory.

But the Polisario Front is fighting for the region's independence and its supporters say the dispute is Africa's only remaining fight against colonial rule.

The African Union recognises the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, as Polisario calls the region.

But most of the territory is under the control of Morocco, which annexed it in 1975 after Spanish colonial forces pulled out.

Polisario, backed by neighbouring Algeria, fought Moroccan forces until a ceasefire was brokered in 1991.

It still runs about a third of the region - this lies behind a huge wall of sand, called a berm, which was erected by the Moroccans.

What is the fighting about?

The trouble flared when Morocco sent paramilitary police to break up a massive tented protest camp which had sprung up just outside the capital, Laayoune.

Several thousand people had joined the camp at Gadaym Izik - the largest protest in the three-decade dispute.

They are not overtly demanding independence like Polisario but have been concentrating on economic demands.

The security forces used water cannon to clear the protesters, some of whom reportedly responded by stabbing a paramilitary policeman and a firefighter to death. The clashes then spread to Laayoune.

Is anyone trying to negotiate a peace deal?

The violence broke out just hours before United Nations-brokered talks resumed in the US, led by the latest UN envoy to the region, US diplomat Christopher Ross.

Negotiations have stalled for more than a decade, with a succession of UN envoys tasked with ending the dispute but moving on after failing to break the deadlock.

Morocco refuses to offer anything more than autonomy for the region, while Polisario insists that full independence must be offered in a referendum.

And if the two sides could agree on a question, another key problem is who would take part in any vote.

Polisario accuses Morocco of flooding the region with non-Sahrawis, in order to dilute nationalist feeling and ensure that any vote rejects independence.

Does the dispute matter?

Western Sahara is rich in phosphates, used to make fertilisers and detergents.

There are also rich fishing grounds off its coast.

For 35 years, the dispute has frozen relations between North African neighbours Morocco and Algeria, with thousands of Sahrawi refugees based across the Algerian border in Tindouf.

So a resolution to the Sahrawi conflict could lead to a restoration of those ties, and mean Morocco rejoins the African Union, which it stormed out of when the AU recognised Western Sahara's independence.

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