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05RABAT1118 2005-05-27 17:47:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Rabat
Cable title:  

WESTERN SAHARA: POLICE USE VIOLENCE TO PUT DOWN

Tags:   KPKO MO PBTS PHUM PREL 
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1. (SBU) Summary: Embassy contacts in Laayoune confirm news
reports that significant demonstrations have taken place in
Laayoune between May 21-25. More than twenty persons have
reportedly been arrested and as many are reported to be
injured, some seriously. Large numbers of police and
military were deployed on the streets of Laayoune, but
MINURSO reports the demonstrations have mostly died down,
though the atmosphere in Laayoune remains charged. End
Summary.



2. (C) MINURSO Chief of Staff Philippe Elghouayel told A/DCM
May 27 that the demonstrations started after Moroccan
authorities decided to transfer a Sahrawi prisoner from
Laayoune jail to a prison in Agadir (southern Morocco).
Relatives and tribesmen of the inmate gathered at the gates
of the jail to protest the move, since moving the prisoner to
Agadir would mean less contact with relatives and that the
prisoner was being moved out of Sahrawi territory and into
Morocco proper. Elghouayel said what began as a small mostly
tribal protest turned more overtly political as pro-Polisario
elements joined in. The demonstrations were not continuous
he said but generally started around 9 pm and lasted until
midnight, from May 22-26. Elghouayel said a MINURSO vehicle
inadvertently drove past a crowd of demonstrators at one
point and was pelted with stones. Polisario flags were on
display, and the crowd was chanting pro-Polisario slogans.

Charged Atmosphere


--------------------------





3. (C) Elghouayel said that press reports (including on
al-Jazeera) characterizing the demonstrations as an
"intifada" were overblown, and even pro-Polisario elements
were not couching the activity as such. MINURSO had no
information that the Polisario had called for an "intifada."
He was not surprised at the demonstrations, however, given
the charged atmosphere in Laayoune. He said several recent
developments had inflamed the atmosphere: on May 17, the
Polisario launched an international tender for offshore oil
and gas exploration, declaring that this decision was
prompted by "the inevitable independence" of the territory;
on May 21, the Polisario celebrated its 32 anniversary, with
Bouteflika's now well-known letter reaffirming Algerian
support for Saharan independence; and on May 24 King Mohammed
announced his decision to pull out of the Arab Maghreb Union
summit.



4. (C) In a written report to DPKO shared with Embassy
Rabat, MINURSO notes that "the underlining tension can be
felt, in particular the pro-Polisario sentiment amongst local
Saharans. Because of the overriding tribal characteristics
of the local population, the prevailing discontent seems
confined within a specific group, although a general feeling
of discontent does exist because of social hardship,
unemployment, and discrimination. The discontent, although
rising, will likely not translate into civil unrest, despite
consistent attempts to make it more widespread."

Pro-Polisario Views


--------------------------





5. (C) President of the Association for the Victims of the
Violations of Human Rights Committed by the Moroccan State
Driss Dahan provided his version of events to Poloff on May


26. He said that a number of protesters were arrested during
four days of protests involving several thousand
demonstrators in neighborhoods throughout the city of
Laayoune, including Mattala, Al Quds, Smarra, Sci Kimma, and
Sharia Tan Tan. Dahan said there has been a general feeling
of frustration for months with the lack of progress towards a
political solution to the Sahara issue and there have been
several demonstrations involving hundreds of protesters since
December. The larger demonstrations began four days ago when
police tried to transfer a Sahrawi prisoner El Hadi Ahmed
Mouhmoud (alias Al-Karnan) from a jail in Laayoune to a
facility in Agadir in southern Morocco. Al Karnan reportedly
tried to resist the prison transfer, renounced his Moroccan
citizenship and was beaten by police. Word of the incident
spread out of the Laayoune jail four days ago and large-scale
protests began the same day, according to Dahan. Serious
police repression began two days ago when authorities
attempted to arrest one demonstration leader, El Koutoub El
Hadith El Hafed, at his home two days ago. Protesters,
eventually numbering more than one thousand, staged a sit-in
in front of El Koutoub,s house. Police reportedly dispersed
the demonstrators, arrested 38 protesters, and injured 20
persons, including seven persons who were seriously injured,
according to Dahan. One man who carried a POLISARIO flag was
badly beaten, arrested and tortured in jail, Dahan alleged.
Some Sahrawis saw the injured man in the hospital, and Dahan
said police later used the man to negotiate with protesters.



6. (SBU) POLFSN called another Sahrawi contact, Mohamed
Daha, who said police struck him in the head during a May 25
demonstration. Daha said fewer Sahrawis were arrested (about
20), but he confirmed a report also provided by Dahan, that
police have detained the entire family belonging to one
Mohamed Al Araby. Daha said no curfew has been announced,
but police are behaving as if there is a curfew and chasing
people off the streets by 6 pm. Both men said that groups
of Moroccan settlers are marching around neighborhoods
chanting provocative slogans with police escorts. Both said
that demonstrators negotiated with police to hold a one-hour
sit-in in front of the courthouse on May 26. Both men said
the demonstrations, the violent police response and the
tension in the city closely resemble the tense situation in
the territory in 1999, that led to severe police repression.
Dahan asked for the Embassy to intervene with Moroccan
authorities to permit Sahrawis to have a time and place for
political demonstrations in order to air their grievances and
to let off steam. He said a violent confrontation between
police and the civilian population was in no one,s interest
at this time.

Where Have All the Young Men Gone?


--------------------------





7. (C) Elghouayel noted separately that political activity
in the Tindouf camps appears to have heated up as well. He
said there was a rise in "passionate speeches" from younger
residents in the lead-up to the 32nd anniversary
celebrations. Since about that time, though, Elghouayel says
almost all of the adult male residents of the Tindouf camps
have departed. While this happens every year around the time
of the Polisario anniversary, Elghouayel thought it unusual
that the men had not yet returned. Elghouayel lamented that
Polisario restrictions on MINURSO movements prevented MINURSO
peacekeepers from investigating the situation more
thoroughly. He added that MINURSO troops had also noted
movements of Polisario military vehicles toward the south.

EU Interest


--------------------------





8. (C) Dutch DCM Caroline Vejiers called A/DCM May 27 to
seek information on the demonstrations, noting that as EU
president the Dutch were interested in what was taking place
and would review the situation with EU colleagues in Rabat.

Comment


--------------------------





9. (C) The Polisario appear to be flexing their muscles,
reminding the Moroccans and the international community they
are alive and well. The timing of these demonstrations can
be no coincidence, given the renewed tension between Morocco
and Algeria. While we have no reason to believe a return to
armed struggle is imminent or even being seriously
contemplated (and nor does MINURSO), the Polisario clearly
wants to demonstrate that they are still a force to be
reckoned with and that they cannot be marginalized without
consequences. Along those lines, we note that Polisario
President Abdulaziz wrote to the Security Council May 26 to
request help in "protecting the Sahrawi population repressed
by Morocco." We have also seen press reports of clashes
between Sahrawi students and Moroccan security forces on a
Rabat university campus on May 27 which we are investigating.

RILEY