Deadly clashes break out in Morocco raid on W. Sahara camp

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Deadly clashes erupted when Moroccan forces broke up a camp housing thousands of refugees in the Western Sahara Monday, the same day UN-brokered peace talks opened on the future of the disputed territory.

Morocco's security forces were ordered to empty a camp housing some 12,000 people set up four weeks ago outside Laayoune, the main town in the Western Sahara, in a protest against deteriorating living conditions in the former Spanish colony annexed by Rabat in 1975.

Mohamed Ghalous, the government representative for Laayoune, said the dawn raid by paramilitary police and auxiliary forces was intended "to end a situation which had exhausted all means of dialogue".

According to Moroccan officials, five officers were killed: a gendarme and a fireman died during the raid, and two others in hospital. A policeman was stabbed to death after demonstrations broke out in Laayoune on news of the assault.

The Polisario Front movement, which seeks independence for the Western Sahara and has set up its own government for the territory, claimed one death -- a 26-year-old man killed by Moroccan security forces.

The raid gave an angry start to talks between Moroccan officials and Polisario representatives held outside New York which a UN spokesman called "highly regrettable".

In Rabat, Moroccan Interior Minister Taieb Cherkaoui told parliament that during the raid more than 60 people were injured.

"Only four civilians were injured," he added, implying that the rest of the wounded were members of the security forces.

The security forces assaulted the camp by ground and air, using helicopters, Polisario minister Salem Ould Salek told AFP in neighbouring Algeria, which is a host country for the Polisario Front and tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees.

Moroccan forces had "repressed in a ferocious and undiscriminating fashion the defenceless civilians who found themselves in the camp," he said.

According to witnesses, they arrived around dawn using high-powered water cannon to clear the camp, and several ambulances took the injured to hospitals, said an AFP reporter on the scene.

"Hundreds of women and children were seen outside the camp heading towards Laayoune but a certain number of Sahrawi (local) men refused to go," said a witness.

The road from Laayoune to the camp was blocked by police to prevent people from the town going to the camp to help protestors.

"The camp is practically dispersed and the young people who refused to go were driven out by force following the intervention of the Moroccan authorities," a Laayoune resident who had returned from the camp told AFP.

Laayoune police said the camp was completely dismantled and not a tent was left on the site.

Until Monday's raid, people in the Laayoune camp had set up a committee to liaise with Moroccan authorities and call for jobs and housing. The committee stated that it was making "an act of social protest", with no political slant.

Western Sahara was annexed by Morocco after Spanish settlers withdrew in 1975. But the Polisario Front fought the Moroccan presence until the United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991.

The Polisario Front wants a UN-organised self-determination referendum, with independence as one of the options. Morocco has so far rejected any proposal that goes beyond greater autonomy.

In Madrid, several hundred people staged a protest against the raid. Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez appealed to both sides to "resume a dialogue... to prevent the conflict from degenerating."

In New York, the United Nations announced the start of new talks, expressing regret over the raid and subsequent violence.

"It is highly unfortunate that this operation and the events preceding and following it have affected the atmosphere in which these talks are being held," said UN spokesman Martin Nesirky, as he called on all parties to exercise restraint.

© 2010 AFP

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