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Posts tagged ‘Land of Western Sahara’

Refugees in Algeria yearn for homeland

2017-11-04

ALGIERS – Selembouha Dadi can only imagine the homeland she dreams of but has never seen, agonizingly out of reach beyond the Algerian refugee camp where she has spent her whole life.

“They tell me it was beautiful,” the 25-year-old said.

The territory that Dadi yearns for is Western Sahara, a sprawling swathe of desert on Africa’s Atlantic coast that has been disputed by Morocco and independence fighters from the Polisario Front for decades.

Her father Moulay abandoned everything and fled 42 years ago when Moroccan troops arrived in 1975 during the rush to claim the former Spanish colony as Madrid let it go.

Now, along with tens of thousands of other refugees, their family of nine lives in one of a string of refugee camps just 50 kilometers (30 miles) away, beyond the Algerian border and a “defense wall” erected by Morocco in the 1980s.

Morocco and Mauritania were meant to share Western Sahara when Spain relinquished control, but in 1976 the Polisario proclaimed the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic — and was determined to fight for it.

Mauritania in 1979 gave up its claim, leaving Morocco to seize most of the 266,000 square kilometer (100,000 square mile) territory, but it was not until 1991 that a UN-backed ceasefire came into force.

Rabat considers Western Sahara an integral part of Morocco and proposes autonomy for the resource-rich territory, but the Algerian-backed Polisario Front insists on a United Nations-backed referendum on independence.

The 2,700-kilometer barrier erected by Morocco slicing from north to south divides the 80 percent of Western Sahara controlled by Morocco from the 20 percent held by the Polisario.

– ‘Left everything behind’ –

Moulay Dadi, 72, served tea in a large traditional tent, a vestige of the Sahrawis’ nomadic past, and cooler than the nearby family cottage with its zinc roof.

He recalled his life back in his desert homeland herding the family’s animals. He was 30 when the Moroccan forces arrived.

“We fled and we left everything behind us, our animals, our property, the houses,” he said.

“We left everything behind us.”

He settled in Algeria’s Tindouf region with his wife and parents, who did not live to see their homeland again.

Some 100,000 Sahrawi refugees live today in the camps around Tindouf. They belong to a mosaic of nomadic tribes who have for centuries plied the sandy expanses of the Sahara with their camels.

The Dadi family’s Boujdour camp, which, like the other camps, bears the name of an area of the Western Sahara controlled by Morocco, is dotted with brown-walled houses the color of the surrounding desert, one of the most inhospitable in the world.

Their home consists of a large living room, a small dining room and a kitchen. The shower and toilets are in a separate building.

There is intermittent electricity and no running water. Trucks pass regularly to fill a large canvas water reservoir.

Like the Dadis, many Sahrawis have set up traditional tents next to their houses in the camp, where life moves slowly.

After the morning prayer, Selembouha Dadi and her mother, in her sixties, cook and clean.

The youngest of the children, 12-year-old Mellah, goes to school.

Some of her brothers work on building sites and the others are in the army of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

Sahrawi refugees in Algeria live mostly on funds from exiled relatives in Europe and on international aid.

The European Union provides some, $11.6 million (10 million euros) a year, despite the Polisario Front being accused of embezzlement in recent years.

Some residents have set up small shops — groceries, bakeries, fruit and vegetable stalls — in the camps.

Others work as officials for the SADR, which has its central administration in Rabouni, not far from Tindouf.

Isolated for decades and largely forgotten by the world, many Sahrawis still believe that they will one day return to the lands of their ancestors.

“We want our land whatever we find there,” Selembouha said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85763.

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Morocco to withdraw from Western Sahara tension zone

2017-02-26

RABAT – Morocco said Sunday it will pull back from a zone of the contested Western Sahara that has raised tensions with Algeria-backed Polisario Front separatists.

“The Kingdom of Morocco will proceed from today with a unilateral withdrawal from the (Guerguerat) zone,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

It said the decision was taken by King Mohammed VI at the request of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

Rabat now “hopes the secretary general’s intervention will allow a return to the previous situation in the zone concerned, keep its status intact, allow the flow of normal road traffic and thus safeguard the ceasefire”, it said.

In a telephone call to Guterres on Friday, the king called on the United Nations to take urgent measures to end “provocation” by the Polisario Front threatening a 1991 ceasefire.

Morocco insists that the former Spanish colony is an integral part of its kingdom, but the Polisario is demanding a referendum on self-determination.

The two sides fought for control of the Western Sahara from 1975 to 1991, with Rabat gaining control of the territory before the UN-brokered ceasefire took effect.

In the phone call, King Mohammed VI condemned “repeated incursion by armed Polisario men” in the Guerguerat district.

Tensions flared last year after the Polisario set up a new military post in Guerguerat district near the Mauritanian border, within a stone’s throw of Moroccan soldiers.

The move came after Morocco last summer started building a tarmac road in the area south of the buffer zone separating the two sides.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=81693.

South Africa backs Polisario at talks

2017-01-06

PRETORIA – South African President Jacob Zuma on Friday held talks in Pretoria with the leader of Western Sahara’s Polisario Front independence movement, in a show of support for the territory’s struggle against Morocco.

Brahim Ghali was making his first visit to South Africa — a long-time ally of Western Sahara — since he was elected in July.

Morocco insists the sparsely-populated desert region is an integral part of the kingdom, despite UN resolutions to hold a referendum on self-determination.

“It is unfathomable that Western Sahara… still remains colonized,” Zuma said.

“We remain committed to continue to walk with the people of Western Sahara until you are free to live in your own land and able to determine your own future.”

Morocco quit the African Union more than 30 years ago when Western Sahara — known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) — was accepted as a member.

But Morocco is now lobbying to return to the AU.

“The Sahrawi people are struggling to recover the total sovereignty of their state, of all their national territory,” Ghali told reporters.

“We are unfortunately confronting military occupation from the neighboring state, the kingdom of Morocco.”

Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, was annexed by Morocco in 1975.

An insurgency pushing for independence ended with a UN-brokered truce in 1991.

Morocco says it will not change its stance on Western Sahara despite its efforts to rejoin the AU.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=80709.

Western Sahara independence movement leader Abdelaziz dies

May 31, 2016

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — The head of the independence movement in the Western Sahara, Mohamed Abdelaziz, died on Tuesday after a long illness, the Polisario Front said in a statement. He was in his late 60s.

The movement ordered a 40-day mourning period, after which a new secretary-general will be chosen, the statement said. The death of Abdelaziz, leader of the Polisario Front for four decades, comes at a time of growing tension over the fate of the Western Sahara. The Polisario Front has fought for four decades for independence for the vast, mineral-rich disputed territory, which was annexed by Morocco after Spain withdrew in 1975.

Morocco now considers the territory its “southern provinces” and has pumped funds into the area’s development over the years. Abdelaziz was born in 1948 in Smara, in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, and led the Polisario Front, which he helped found, since 1976, according to Algeria’s state-run APS news agency.

The status of the Western Sahara has recently spread new friction between two North African neighbors, Morocco and Algeria, which supports the Polisario Front, and like numerous other African countries recognizes the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic it defends. The Polisario Front is based in Tindouf, in southern Algeria.

Abdelaziz’s death comes at a critical time, with ties between Morocco and Algiers growing increasingly prickly, and Morocco increasingly assertive with the United Nations, which has worked for years to help settle the issue.

The Moroccan government has proposed wide-ranging autonomy for the region, but the Polisario Front insists on self-determination through a referendum for the local population — as called for in U.N. resolutions.

Morocco expelled most U.N. civilian staff last month after the U.N. chief used the word “occupation” to refer to the situation in the region following a visit to a camp for Western Sahara refugees in southern Algeria. The U.N. mission had nearly 500 military and civilian personnel but 83 were ordered to leave and a military liaison was ordered to close, crippling its operation.

In April, a top member of the Polisario Front, Bachir Mustafa Sayed, warned that war is possible over the disputed territory if the U.N. Security Council fails to set a timetable for a vote on self-determination.

Abdelaziz warned in an April letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that Morocco will have “a green light to a military aggression” unless the Security Council imposes “real and direct pressure” on Morocco to restore the U.N. mission’s work. He warned that the Sahrawi people in Western Sahara will defend their rights in the face of aggression “by all legitimate means, including armed struggle.”

The Polisario had mounted a desert war against Morocco after the territory was annexed. According to Article 46 of the Polisario’s internal rules, an extraordinary congress will be held to replace Abdelaziz in 40 days, at the close of the period of mourning, the Polisario statement said. The movement has appointed the head of the movement’s National Council, Khatri Abdouh, as interim Polisario leader.

Elaine Ganley reported from Paris. Samia Errazzouki in Ouarzazate, Morocco, contributed to this report.

Morocco defends hold on Western Sahara and targets IKEA

October 31, 2015

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Morocco is reacting aggressively to any challenges to its claims on Western Sahara, as it marks 40 years since taking control of the mineral-rich territory. Among apparent targets of its wrath: Swedish icons IKEA, Volvo and H&M.

This month, the Moroccan government announced it would consider boycotting Swedish products and companies over reports that Sweden was planning to recognize the independence of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, or SADR, which disputes sovereignty over Western Sahara with Morocco. Some 60 countries consider it an independent state, but no Western nation does. Morocco has been stuck in a frozen conflict for years with the Polisario Front, the Algeria-backed insurgency that proclaimed SADR.

Brands associated with Sweden have faced difficulties in Morocco in recent weeks: The country’s first IKEA store was blocked from opening last month over administrative problems. Employees were mysteriously unable to enter a Volvo dealership.

Thousands of Moroccans from labor unions and non-governmental groups marched in front of the Swedish Embassy in support of the possible boycott — some distributing brochures showing the logo of companies such as Swedish retailer H&M crossed out with a bold red “x.”

“This is the Moroccan people’s decision, not the Moroccan government’s,” said Mohamed Yacoubi from the Moroccan Center for Human Rights, who participated in the protest. Sweden will undergo a review of its policy toward the Western Sahara, due to be completed in February. But so far, “there has been no dramatic development in Sweden,” said Jens Orback, a former Social Democratic Cabinet member and current head of the Olof Palme International Center, a human rights group linked to Sweden’s governing Social Democrats.

While in the opposition, the Social Democrats called for Sweden to recognize the Western Sahara as an independent state, but now that they are in government, they appear more cautious. “The experience from (Sweden’s) recognition of Palestine have made them realize that they will get a lot of criticism,” Orback said.

Meanwhile, Morocco sent a delegation to Sweden comprised of leaders of leftist parties, with Nabila Mounib, Secretary General of the United Socialist Party, at its head. Upon her return, Mounib said that “Sweden does not understand Morocco’s anxieties.” She said she had the impression, however, that Sweden doesn’t plan to recognize SADR independence.

The Sweden flap is one of several signs of tension ahead of the 40th anniversary of the Western Saharan conflict next month, which the Moroccan government is marking with speeches and royal visits. Morocco annexed the mineral-rich former Spanish colony in 1975 and fought the Polisario Front until the U.N. brokered a cease-fire in 1991. The territory on the Atlantic Coast is home to the U.N.’s longest-running peacekeeping mission — and its only mission without a mandate to monitor human rights.

Human rights groups say Morocco uses violence to stifle dissent, while the government insists U.N. monitoring is only needed when there are major violations. The issue erupted into a diplomatic dispute with the U.S. in 2013.

The Moroccan government recently urged Human Rights Watch to suspend its activities in Morocco pending a meeting between government representatives and the group’s executive director, Kenneth Roth. Human Rights Watch says it responded and proposed meeting dates, with no response.

Then in early October, the Wall Street Journal carried a full-page appeal by Communications Minister Mustapha Khalfi to Roth describing the group’s activities in Morocco as biased. “We don’t understand what motivates this surprisingly aggressive letter,” said Ahmed Benchemsi, Human Rights Watch’s Advocacy and Communications Director, for its Middle East and North Africa Division.

The group says it’s especially surprised by the new pressure because in August it publicly praised the Moroccan government’s approval of the Sahrawi Association of Victims of Human Rights Abuses Committed by the Moroccan State.

Diplomatic tensions around Western Sahara often manifest themselves indirectly. The troubles with IKEA, for example, erupted just before it was scheduled to open Sept. 29. Morocco’s Interior Ministry said its opening was blocked because it lacked a proper “certificate of conformity.” But the move came amid Internet rumors about Sweden’s potential recognition of the Western Sahara. While IKEA is now based in the Netherlands, its founder and public image are resolutely Swedish.

Soon afterward, the government said it was considering a boycott of Swedish goods. Around the same time, authorities reportedly blocked employees from entering a Casablanca Volvo dealership, operated by a private importer.

“We are not affected by the discussed boycott in Morocco,” Volvo Cars said in a statement. “The incident in Casablanca relates to an issue around the ownership and rent of the dealership facility, it has nothing to do with the political debate.”

Karl Ritter in Stockholm contributed to this report.

Tensions high in Western Sahara despite new plan

January 01, 2014

LAAYOUNE, Western Sahara (AP) — Helmeted Moroccan riot police waded into the small crowds of women in brightly colored shawls who chanted slogans for independence on the streets of Laayoune, the capital of the disputed territories of the Western Sahara. Every time one group of the mostly women and children protesters was dispersed, another would appear farther down the street, attracting phalanxes of police. The confrontations continued long after dark and degenerated into stone-throwing contests.

The harsh police response against the Sahrawis, as the region’s native inhabitants are known, contrasted with the conciliatory gestures the Moroccan government have been extending to the restive desert territory that it annexed 38 years ago. Just weeks before the demonstrations, the government announced a potentially groundbreaking, 10-year economic plan to boost the standard of living and increase respect for human rights — but that has done little to defuse tensions.

The stakes are higher than Morocco’s internal problems. The Western Sahara neighbors Mauritania and Algeria are both at the center of the West’s fight against terrorism in the deserts of north Africa. The presence of up to 100,000 angry refugees from the Western Sahara in camps in neighboring Algeria has attracted the concern of U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, who described the refugees as a regional source of instability.

In 1975, Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara and fought a local independence movement called the Polisario. The U.N. brokered a ceasefire in 1991, pending a referendum over the territory’s fate that has never taken place. Now the Moroccan government is presiding over a population with nearly twice the unemployment as the rest of the country, amid growing international unease over the situation.

At dusk in Laayoune’s Sahrawi neighborhoods, the tension is palpable, with security trucks on every corner surrounded by riot police in helmets and shields. El-Ghali Djimi, a former political prisoner and a founder of local human rights groups, said she fears her children growing up in this atmosphere may turn to violence, radicalized by the harsh tactics of security forces. Terrorism has been absent from the Sahrawi conflict since the 1991 ceasefire, but concerns are rife that disgruntled youth in the cities or the refugee camps may turn to violence or even become recruits for al-Qaida.

“My generation, the older ones, we have a tolerance, but the youth don’t,” she said. Djimi’s rights groups, like others founded by the Sahrawis, are not recognized by the state, which is very sensitive over who monitors human rights in the territories.

Proposals by the U.S. in April to expand the mandate of the U.N. monitoring mission to include human rights provoked strong protest from Morocco. Instead, the government said, the state-founded National Council for Human Rights performs that function.

Sidi Mohammed Salem Saadoun, the executive director of the council’s local branch, said that after a demonstration in October, police broke into some 70 homes of people in retaliation. He noted that this didn’t happen after the most recent protests Dec. 10, calling it a step in the right direction.

Saadoun admitted, however, that “much still needs to be done.” Out of the 442 complaints the group has submitted to the government on behalf of people since 2011, it has only received seven responses.

The new development plan was publicly backed by King Mohammed VI during a speech in November and calls for overhauling how Morocco manages this desert territory of 500,000 people. “There’s just a general consensus that things were not working and I think this plan just laid it out,” said Anouar Boukhars, an expert on the region working with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “If the plan is buttressed by judicial and police reforms, which must be done, it has the potential to address the grievances of the local population.”

Morocco faces an uphill battle, however, to convince many disaffected Sahrawis of its commitment to human rights and cutting unemployment in half. Years of harsh treatment by security forces has left a legacy of bitterness among many inhabitants, some of whom maintain that self-determination through a U.N.-supervised referendum is the only way to improve their fate.

“If we get self-determination, all the problems can be solved — with another 10 years they are just playing for time,” said Dalil Lehcen, an activist studying how Western Sahara’s rich phosphate and fishing resources are used for Morocco’s benefit. “They haven’t done it in the last 37 years — no one in the Western Sahara trusts Morocco.”

The new plan, devised at the request of the king, tacitly acknowledges that things aren’t going well. It proposes restoring the trust between authorities and the people by “affirming the primacy of human rights, respecting the authority of the law and guaranteeing access to justice.”

Yet the powerful governor of the territory, the man who will be leading the implementation of the plan, denied there was any lack of trust between the people and the authorities. He expressed bafflement at the claims that the proposal implies shortcomings in the justice system.

“Everyone has equal access, I really don’t know what they are saying with that — there is no problem,” said Khalil Dkhil from his office. He also presented a very different vision of the periodic protests that wrack the city of Laayoune. “People have sold their souls to the devil Algeria,” he said, describing the protesters as a small minority taking money from regional rival Algeria, which host the pro-independence Polisario movement and supports Western Saharan independence. “They pay children to throw rocks and women to go into the street and provoke police. It’s just a question of money.”

As seen by the harsh reaction to the Dec. 10 demonstration, which left dozens injured, the authorities fear losing control, said one prominent human rights activist. “They don’t really want to open the area to human rights because they know it is like dominos,” said Mohammed Salem Lakhal, founder of the CODESA human rights group. “You touch the first piece and all the pieces will fall down.”

Sahrawis clash with police during ‘illegal’ Laayoune protest

2013-10-21

RABAT – Bloody clashes erupted between police and pro-independence protesters in Western Sahara, a human rights group said Monday, as the UN envoy wrapped up his latest visit to the disputed territory.

Dozens of civilians required hospital treatment, including women and children, after police moved to break up a “peaceful protest” in the territory’s main city Laayoune on Saturday, the Moroccan Human Rights Association (AMDH) said.

“The police violently dispersed the gathering and surrounded the residential Maatalla district, breaking into people’s houses and causing a lot of damage,” the independent rights group’s Laayoune representative Hamoud Iguilid said.

Local authorities, cited by the official MAP news agency, contradicted the AMDH’s version of events, saying five members of the security forces were wounded in “acts of vandalism and violence.”

Some 400 people gathered “without permission” and began throwing stones and petrol bombs, according to the authorities, who made no mention of civilian casualties and strongly denied that police had broken into people’s houses.

Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975 in a move never recognized by the international community, while its neighbor Algeria backs the pro-independence Polisario Front.

The clashes took place a day after UN special envoy Christopher Ross arrived in Laayoune on a new bid to push for a peaceful resolution to the decades-old conflict.

Moroccan media accused the protesters of provoking the security forces during Ross’s visit to the North African kingdom to trigger Polisario’s media propaganda.

During his visit, which also took him to the town of Smara in the territory’s desert interior, Ross met local Moroccan officials, tribal chiefs and civil society representatives, both for and against independence.

The former US diplomat, who has already visited Rabat and Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria on his latest tour, was expected to leave Laayoune on Monday morning.

He has made no public comments during the tour.

A spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force in Western Sahara, known as MINURSO, reported a “massive” police presence in Laayoune at the weekend, but was unable to comment on or confirm clashes between police and protesters.

Morocco has proposed broad autonomy for the territory under its sovereignty, an initiative rejected by the Polisario Front, which has campaigned for independence since 1973 and which fought Moroccan troops for a decade and half until the United Nations negotiated a ceasefire in 1991.

The Polisario, which still controls a small strip of territory in the desert interior, insists on the Sahrawis’ right to determine their own future in a UN-monitored referendum.

Ross’s efforts to bring the two sides together for direct talks have faltered amid some acrimony, with the Moroccan government briefly demanding last year that UN chief Ban Ki-moon replace the envoy.

Earlier this year, aggressive international lobbying by Rabat successfully shot down an unprecedented US proposal to task the peacekeepers with human rights monitoring.

Instead, a UN Security Council resolution extending the force’s mandate simply stressed the “importance of improving the human rights situation” in Western Sahara and the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria.

In the weeks after the Security Council vote, scores of pro-independence protesters were wounded in clashes with Moroccan security forces in Laayoune and other towns.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=62071.

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