LAAYOUNE, Morocco (AFP) – Moroccan police deployed in Western Sahara on Monday to dismantle a refugee camp set up near Laayoune, injuring several people during the operation, witnesses said.
“Law enforcement officers arrived around dawn using high-powered water cannon to clear the camp and several ambulances were seen taking the injured to hospitals,” said an AFP reporter on the scene.
Local officials said the operation was aimed at a group who had refused orders to leave the camp, built by some 12,000 people outside the main town in the Western Sahara, which was annexed by Morocco in the mid-1970s.
“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.
Fighting between police and protestors spread to the streets of Laayoune, said a Moroccan head of a local non-government organisation.
“The fighting started yesterday but was reignited when news of the assault on the camp was received,” he said.
The road from Laayoune to the camp was blocked by police to prevent people from the town going to the camp to help protestors.
Western Sahara was annexed by Morocco after Spanish settlers withdrew in 1975. But activists belonging to the Polisario Front fought the Moroccan presence until the United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991.
The Polisario Front, backed by Algeria, wants a UN-organized self-determination referendum. Morocco has so far rejected any proposal that goes beyond greater autonomy.
The latest unrest comes as the two sides along with officials from Algeria and Mauritania prepare to meet in Greentree in the New York suburbs Monday and Tuesday, the third time the two sides have met for such talks.