RABAT, (Reuters) – Moroccan police detained seven leading Polisario activists after they visited the Western Saharan independence movement’s headquarters in Algeria, Sahrawi rights group and Moroccan security sources said on Saturday.
The Algiers-backed Polisario Front chief Mohammed Abdelaziz urged the United Nations to intervene on behalf of the six men and one woman, calling the arrests on their return from the visit an “abduction”. “The seven (activists) were arrested from the plane gate by Moroccan police shortly after the plane they were travelling on from Algiers landed in Casablanca late on Thursday,” the Western Sahara-based Sahrawi Codesa rights group said in a statement.
Moroccan security officials confirmed the arrests but declined to give more details.
Rabat said the activists’ trip to the southwestern Algerian area of Tindouf, where Polisario is headquartered and thousands of Sahrawi refugees live, had “hurt the feelings of the whole Moroccan people”.
Most Moroccan political parties including Islamists, liberals and Socialists have denounced the visit as an act of high treason. “We call on the United Nations to intervene and free these activists immediately and without conditions,” Abdelaziz said in a letter to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, carried by Algeria’s state news agency APS on Friday.
Diplomats say the row over Western Sahara, a territory slightly bigger than Britain with under half a million people, is hampering efforts to tackle an insurgency linked to al Qaeda that is spreading south through the Sahara desert.
Moroccan authorities regard the seven activists as the “shadow” of the Polisario leadership. Their detention, if followed by prosecution and jailing, could derail renewed efforts by the UN to settle the territorial dispute.
Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1975 and is now offering it autonomy. But Polisario, which fought a guerrilla war until 1991, is demanding a referendum on the region’s future.
A Spanish colony until Madrid pulled out in 1975, Western Sahara has reserves of phosphates — used in fertiliser — and the potential for big offshore oil and gas finds. No other country recognises Morocco’s rule.
Moroccan security sources said Rabat believed the activists had discussed with Polisario leaders a plan to foment pro-independence demonstrations in Western Sahara before a new round of UN-sponsored talks due before the end to this year.