Morocco 'raided Western Sahara camp to sabotage talks'

Western Sahara independence campaigner Aminatou Haidar attends a lecture at the University in Lisbon Aminatou Haidar came to prominence last year when she went on hunger strike at Lanzarote airport

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A prominent human rights campaigner has told the BBC she believes the clearing of a protest camp in Western Sahara by Moroccan forces could be classed as a crime against humanity.

Aminatou Haidar, nicknamed the "Gandhi of Sahara", said Morocco was deliberately escalating the clashes.

It was a tactic to block UN-sponsored talks on the territory, which was annexed by Morocco in 1975, she said.

At least eight people died in the violence on Monday.

Moroccan authorities have not reacted to Ms Haidar's comments - Morocco's London embassy told the BBC it was not entitled to comment on recent events in Western Sahara.

The region's pro-independence movement, the Polisario Front, said 11 people had been killed.

The Gadaym Izik camp was set up about a month ago outside Laayoune, the capital of the disputed territory, as a protest by displaced Sahrawi people about their living conditions. It was home to more than 12,000 people.

Polisario said Moroccan troops used live ammunition, tear gas and water cannon against thousands of people at the camp.

It overshadowed the negotiations between the two sides in New York, which ended on Tuesday with no breakthrough.

'Calculated'

Ms Haidar, who is in Portugal meeting local supporters of the Sahrawi people's campaign for self-determination, said it was not by chance that the violence had escalated when they did.

Western Sahara

Map
  • Seized by Morocco in 1975 after Spain and Mauritania withdrew
  • Polisario Front seeks independence but Morocco is only prepared to grant autonomy
  • Territory rich in phosphates, fisheries and possibly offshore oil
  • Polisario fought a guerrilla war against Morocco but a ceasefire has been in place since 1991

"Why is it that Morocco, which sits at the negotiating table, massacres the Sahrawi people on the eve of negotiations?" she told the BBC.

"This was well-studied, planned and calculated because the protest camp was there for already a month."

Polisario says at least 11 people died in the raid and more than 700 people were wounded and many others are missing.

The official Moroccan news agency says eight members of the security forces died.

Last year Ms Haidar came to international prominence when she went on hunger strike at Lanzarote airport after she was expelled to Spain's Canary Islands by the Moroccan authorities.

She had been trying to return to Western Sahara and refused to define herself as Moroccan on an official form.

Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, is the scene of one of Africa's longest-running territorial disputes.

The phosphate-rich territory was annexed by Morocco after Spanish settlers left in 1975. Polisario fought a guerrilla war against Morocco until the UN brokered a ceasefire in 1991.

Rabat now offers to grant it autonomy, while Polisario is demanding a referendum on full independence.

The talks between both sites have been deadlocked for year.

The two sides have now agreed to meet again next month and in the New Year.

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