International concern grows over Western Sahara raid

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Spain on Friday joined growing international concern over a Moroccan police raid on a Western Sahara camp settlement that led to deadly clashes, while Rabat stopped journalists from traveling to the territory.

"Spain believes the circumstances of these events should be clarified urgently, and this is what we relayed to the Moroccan government," Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez told reporters in Madrid, referring to clashes that erupted Monday in the camp outside the Western Saharan town of Laayoune.

Jimenez's remarks came as both the Polisario Front independence movement and Moroccan authorities raised their casualty estimates from the violence that broke out when Moroccan authorities dismantled a squatter camp housing thousands of Sahrawis.

The Polisario claimed Friday that Moroccan forces killed dozens, wounded some 4,500 and arrested more than 2,000 people -- up from its previous estimate of 11 dead and 723 injured. It said at least some of the victims were civilians.

For its part, Rabat revised late Thursday its death toll to 12 after the death of a demonstrator. It said Moroccan security forces accounted for 10 of those who died.

In Algeria, visiting British Foreign Office minister for the Middle East and North Africa Alistair Burt registered alarm at the unrest.

"We view the situation with great concern, particularly after the reports of increased violence during the last few days," Burt told a news briefing.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner previously described the clashes as "very serious."

On Friday, Moroccan authorities expelled three Spanish journalists who tried to travel to Western Sahara and withdrew the accreditation of a fourth, from the ABC daily, accusing him of "lacking complete professionalism" in his coverage of the clashes.

"I don't understand this decision because I have worked in Morocco for several years and continue to do so while respecting the law and journalism rules," said ABC reporter Luis de Vega.

Rabat claimed the other three reporters, from Spain's Cadena radio, had furnished "false information on their identity and their profession," Morocco's official MAP news agency reported.

Yet another journalist, Moroccan Ali Lmrabet, told AFP he had been prevented at Casablanca's airport from flying to Laayoune.

"I bought my ticket in Spain and when I arrived at the airport of Casablanca, the official from Royal Air Maroc told me there was no more room," he said.

Earlier this week, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said that Royal Air Maroc employees had blocked a dozen foreign journalists from embarking in Laayoune to report on the events.

With details of the Laayoune raid and the numbers of casualties vague and shifting, rights group Amnesty International has called on Morocco to launch an independent probe.

The clashes coincided with a new round of UN-brokered peace talks between Rabat and the Polisario that ended on Tuesday with both sides agreeing only to meet again in December.

Morocco annexed the Western Sahara after Spanish settlers withdrew in 1975, but the Polisario fought its presence until a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991.

© 2010 AFP

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