LAAYOUNE, WESTERN SAHARA // Moroccan security forces in the disputed territory of Western Sahara yesterday destroyed an encampment of thousands of native Saharawis demanding housing and state jobs in a surprise dawn raid, eyewitnesses said.
"I was awakened by voices shouting that the camp was invaded," Said, an unemployed Saharawi reached yesterday by telephone, said. "The police were everywhere, tearing apart the tents."
The operation came as Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front independence movement started two days of talks near New York City on resolving the 35-year conflict over the territory.
Morocco largely annexed Western Sahara in 1975 after Spanish colonisers withdrew, sparking a 16-year war with the Polisario.
The Polisario wants a referendum with independence as an option, while Morocco rules that out and proposes autonomy. Talks begun in 2007 have so far failed to break the impasse.
Morocco has poured money into building up Western Sahara's infrastructure, and Moroccans now outnumber about 100,000 Saharawis in the territory by about two to one.
However, Saharawi protesters say they are excluded from the territory's large public sector, lack housing and do not benefit from natural resources such as fish and phosphates.
Last month about 30 protesters pitched tents outside Laayoune, Western Sahara's main city, the nucleus of a camp that ultimately grew to about 8,000 tents, according to camp organisers interviewed during a visit there last week.
Three weeks ago, the Moroccan army deployed to surround the camp, while police and gendarmerie set up roadblocks to control access to it.
While the camp's governing committee has insisted that their demands are strictly socioeconomic, some camp protesters said privately that they also supported independence for Western Sahara.
Tension rose in Laayoune on Sunday as Saharawi demonstrators clashed with police and blocked roads with stones and bonfires following reports that Moroccan authorities had sealed access to the camp.
Early yesterday morning, security forces moved into the camp and razed it to the ground, according to protesters inside at the time.
"There was no warning," said Hayat, one of the protesters. "The police came on in foot and by car from all sides, throwing stones."
According to a statement yesterday by the interior ministry, authorities destroyed the camp in order to arrest people inside wanted for various criminal offenses or accused by authorities of trying to politicise the protesters' demands.
The state news agency reported Monday that two security agents were killed in the operation, while another agent was killed yesterday during clashes in Laayoune.
Riot police occupied central Laayoune, commandeering whole streets, a cafe and a high school, and blocked access to Smara Avenue, a Saharawi neighbourhood.
"The police assaulted Smara Avenue, beating people everywhere and bombing us with tear gas," said Hayat, reached by phone as demonstrators clashed with riot police.