Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sahara talks at risk from Morocco action-Polisario

By Lamine Chikhi ALGIERS,

June 11

(Reuters) - Morocco is cracking down harder than usual on independence activists in Western Sahara raising doubts about peace talks due to start next week, the Polisario independence movement said on Monday.The government has denied that police used excessive force to break up the demonstrations, saying they had intervened each time to separate rival gangs of students. "Morocco's behaviour may jeopardise the negotiations, as it could also jeopardise peace and stability in the region," Polisario's foreign affairs spokesman Mohamed Salem Ould Salek told a news conference in the Algerian capital. His comments came as a Polisario-backed Moroccan human rights organisation, called CODESA, accused Morocco of recently arresting and kidnapping a large number of civilians including children in Western Sahara's main city of Laayoune. There was no immediate comment from Moroccan authorities. Morocco and Polisario are due to hold U.N.-sponsored talks on June 18-19 to try to negotiate an end to Africa's oldest territorial dispute by setting the status of the former Spanish colony, annexed by Morocco after Madrid pulled out in 1975. "The talks are going to be a test to see if Morocco is serious about peace in the region," Ould Salek said. In May Polisario's leader Mohamed Abdelaziz said a failure to break the deadlock could reignite the movement's armed struggle, triggered initially by Morocco's move more than 30 years ago. A 1991 U.N. ceasefire accord promised a referendum on the territory's fate, but it never happened and Rabat now rules it out, saying autonomy is the most it will offer. Morocco wants talks about self-rule for the territory under Moroccan sovereignty, but Algeria-backed Polisario has demanded a referendum that would include the option of full independence. ABUSESRights campaigners in Morocco have said that Moroccan police have beaten and imprisoned dozens of independence activists demonstrating on university campuses in recent weeks. Ould Salek added that he saw "no positive signals" that Morocco was committed to peace and to talking in good faith. Ould Salek said Algerian-backed Polisario was approaching the talks in a positive spirit. The movement wants to negotiate with Morocco on ways to hold a referendum that would offer a choice between independence, integration into Morocco and self-governance. "If we get our independence, we will be more than happy to establish friendly and economic relations with Morocco," Ould Salek said, adding that "doors will then be open for stability and cooperation in the region." The Western Sahara dispute is the main cause of tension between Morocco and Algeria, whose land borders, closed in 1994 amid security tensions, remain shut.

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