Moroccan security forces were deployed in large numbers in Western Sahara, residents said, after deadly clashes put the dispute over the Moroccan-controlled territory under international scrutiny.
Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony which was annexed by Morocco in 1975 sparking Africa’s longest-running territorial dispute, erupted into violence on Monday when Moroccan security forces broke up a protest camp.
The Polisario independence movement said 11 civilians died and 723 were wounded in the clashes — the worst for years in the territory. In a statement issued from Algeria, where it is based in desert camps, it also said 159 people had disappeared.
Morocco said on Monday four of its police officers and one firefighter had died from wounds sustained in the clashes.
A senior Moroccan official in the regional capital Laayoune said no civilians were killed in the fighting but one had died in a traffic accident, which was being investigated. Four civilians were hurt and none had disappeared but about 160 had been detained for vandalism, he said.
Residents of Laayoune, Western Sahara’s main city, said there was still tension but no repeat of Monday’s violence.
“Police are deployed in numbers on the streets and outside Polisario strongholds,” one independence activist, who said he did not want to be identified for fear of arrest, told Reuters by telephone.
Another resident said: “Dozens of burnt-out cars belonging to police and civilians which were set ablaze by protesters are strewn on both sides of Smara street,” describing Laayoune’s main thoroughfare. He said some government buildings had also been set on fire and destroyed.
A handful of protesters gathered in Laayoune’s Hay al Awa neighbourhood but quickly dispersed when police advanced towards them, Polisario activists told Reuters.
Negotiators from Morocco and the Polisario Front were scheduled to meet near New York later on Tuesday for a second day of talks, brokered by the United Nations, to try to end the stalemate in the conflict over Western Sahara’s status.
Morocco says the territory, a thinly-populated desert tract about the size of Britain, should be under its sovereignty, while the Polisario says it is an independent state.
In Brussels, the European Union said the violence undermined peace talks. “The European Union regrets the fatal incidents that took place yesterday in the Western Sahara territory,” said Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic.
“We are very worried about the violence … and we call on all parties to remain calm and to avoid any acts of violence.”
Morocco said it raided the protest camp, where about 20,000 people had been staying for a month to demand jobs and better services, after its efforts to negotiate were rebuffed.
“It’s very calm,” the senior Moroccan official in Laayoune told Reuters. “People are in the cafes and restaurants as usual. Road traffic is back to normal.”