Sahrawis clash with police as UN envoy visits

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 told AFP.

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 recognised by the international community, while its neighbour 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.

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.