Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Western Sahara: The Intifada You Haven't Heard About

A struggle for national liberation has been ongoing in the Western Sahara for decades. Largely unnoticed here in the US of A. An intifada has been going on for days, even more unnoticed.

The "new Intifada" began just over a week ago in the Moroccan occupied territory. According to "Afrol News" Moroccan security forces have answered the demonstrators with tear gas and mass arrests of civilians.

The Intifada began peacefully in Western Sahara's capital El Aaiun where human rights activists protested against limited freedom. The activists were soon joined by hundreds Saharawi (Western Sahara) citizens. The new arrivals took the human rights folks demands a step farther. They wanted the Moroccans out. They wanted real freedom. Saharawi national flags were carried, some protesters set tires on fire and some engaged in street battles with Moroccan security forces.

According to Brahim Noumria - a prominent Saharawi human rights activist who has spent several years in Moroccan prisons - the occupying power was overwhelmed by the mass mobilization. The rights activists, known to the police and usually let in peace by them, had noted "the genuine fear" among the Moroccan troops stationed in El Aaiun, faced by a new and surprising rebellion.

According to a variety of sources, many involved in the El Aaiun uprising have been disappeared or taken into custody.

But instead of shutting down the uprising, people across the nation rose up in defiance. Within 24 hours Intifada had spread to other cities and towns in Western Sahara and Morocco. There have been several reports of confrontations in the Saharawi town including Smara and Dakhla and of protesting Saharawis in the Moroccan cities including Tan Tan and Rabat.

Students at Souissi II University in the Moroccan capital, Rabat, pelted police with stones in response to attempts to break up their demonstration of support. "Around 100 policemen came in backup and raided the campus restaurant, rooms and other facilities. We all had to run," said one student, who asked to be identified only as HS. According to Reuters at least a dozen students were wounded.

In Agadir and Fez, Saharawi students also organized marches of solidarity and support for the Intifada and read releases condemning the repression against their people in the occupied territories of Western Sahara.

The amazing thing is that none of this appears to be coordinated by the Polisario who have long led the liberation movement. Rather it seems that Intifada has developed autonomously out of frustration over the Moroccan occupation and the Kingdom's unwillingness to engage in the UN-led peace process.

Internationally there has been some been some strong opposition to the repressive response of the occupying Moroccan forces.

Protestors staged demonstrations in the Spanish cities of Seville and Almeria to urge an end to the "violent repression" in the Western Sahara and to support what they term the Saharawi people's right to independence. The associations organizing the protests have repeatedly accused the Zapatero government of "passiveness" in the face of the Moroccan authorities' continuing clampdown on the territory's separatist movement.

On Sunday the 3rd Congress of Canaries Coalition (CC) adopted a resolution which condemned "the strong oppression" and which expressed "solidarity with the legitimate aspiration of the Saharawi people struggle for self-determination."

The Spanish Human Rights League (SHRL), according to the Sahara Press Service (SPS) "strongly condemned" the violation by Morocco "of the most fundamental human rights, the right to demonstrate" in Western Sahara "at a moment when the international commrecognizeognise to the Saharawi people its rights on the basis of an arsenal of resolutions and many settlement plans, all of which Morocco accepted"SHRL asked for "the immediate release of the political prisoner EL Keinan and the 33 detainees of the Intifada", and to "immediately undertake measures against the persons who bares the responsibility of the repression."

Meanwhile, Polisario accused the Moroccan government of terrible repression. "The repression by the Moroccan authorities which is still going on has left 57 people injured, seven of them seriously, dozens of people under arrest, many others missing... and dozens of houses completely sacked," the Polisario said in a letter to the United Nations written on Sunday.

"The violation of civil and political rights... demands a firm reaction from the whole international community," said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by IRIN. "Every day that the world delays means added suffering for the civilian population."

Agence France Presse reported that Morocco was opening an inquiry into the clashes. But the Polisario said it wanted an international probe into the recent disturbances and foreign observers and journalists to come to the territory.

Still the Moroccan government is doing what it can to keep the latest uprising a secret. According to "Western Sahara On Line", Moroccan authorities have expelled the journalist Abdessalam Razzak from the Arabic channel television 'Al Jazeera'. The journalist had just arrived to cover a report on the situation in Western Sahara. Also, two journalists upon their arrival at the airport in El Aaiun, two journalists from the Moroccan weekly "Assahifa"; Lahcen Aouad and Mourad Bourja, were held for more than three hours before being released. In addition, members of the Spanish television channel TVE team, who reached El Aaiun, were prevented from leaving the hotel. However, they were able to give an account of the situation and on their forced confinement by using their cell phones.

Even before the outbreak of the new Intifada tensions had been rising in the region. A summit of North African Heads of State which was abruptly scrapped when, according to IRIN, Morocco reacted angrily to Algeria's reiteration of its support for the Polisario.

Earlier in the month the Polisario's chief negotiator, Emhamed Khadad, had told Reuters that the liberation forces were considering resuming armed struggle if UN led peace talks continued to stagnate. The current deal on the table provides for Western Sahara to be given self-rule for a period of four to five years. After that, its long-term residents and the refugees in Algerian camps would vote in a referendum to choose whether the territory is to be fully integrated with Morocco, continue to have autonomy within the Moroccan state, or become independent. The plan has been accepted by the Polisario movement, but rejected by Morocco.

Less then one month ago, the government-in-exile of Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) outmaneuvered the Moroccans when it invited international oil companies to bid for 12 offshore exploration licenses at a meeting in London. The London meeting comes a week after Texan oil giant Kerr McGee announced it was renewing its reconnaissance agreement to work in the disputed country for only six months, but on Moroccan terms. Morocco which invaded Western Sahara over thirty years ago is eager to offer big business the chance to operate in Western Sahara in the hope that Western operations will help legitimize the occupation.

Tom Marchbanks of the Western Sahara Campaign UK said: "It is important for oil companies to approach SADR when seeking approval to operate in Western Sahara. By operating in the territory solely with Moroccan approval they are legitimizing the occupation, potentially exhausting the valuable resources of the Saharawi refugees and showing a disregard and ignorance for international law and corporate social responsibility."

Only one major oil company seems to be completely dissing the SADR. Kerr McGee appears largely alone in its oil dealings with Rabat on Western Sahara following the pullout from the territory of Norwegian, Dutch and Danish seismic firms in 2003 and mid-2004 and then Total - which had a similar agreement with Rabat - last November.

"For KMG to renew their contract flies in the face of attempts by the wider petroleum industry to instill greater moral and ethical best practice," says Tom Marchbanks of campaigners Western Sahara Resource Watch. "By continuing its activities in Western Sahara,… KMG is legitimizing the Moroccan occupation while actively seeking to exhaust valuable potential resources..."

"Under international laws decreeing the treatment of non-self-governing territories, Morocc's granting of rights in Western Sahara to Kerr McGee holds no more sway than if those rights had been granted by Luxembourg or Ireland, says political scientist and lawyer Raphael Fisera. Sources: IRIN, Aljazeera, Sahara Press Service (SPS), Reuters, Adnkronos International (AKI), Afrol News, Oilbarrel, Finanacial Times, Western Sahara Campaign, Reporters Without Borders