- Following a visit to occupied Western Sahara by Moroccan King Mohammed VI this weekend, 30 Sahrawi prisoners were released by royal pardon. The pro-independence freed Sahrawis were given a heroes' welcome in the towns of El Aaiun and Smara, which turned into popular riots demanding the release of other 37 activists. During the clashes with Moroccan police, where several persons were injured, more Sahrawis were arrested. Activists speak of almost 100 detentions, while Morocco recognises four.
Sahrawis had pinned some hope to the Moroccan King's visit to the occupied territory, as this is usually accompanied with a gesture such as an amnesty. A large number of Sahrawis are currently in Moroccan detention, allegedly being tortured, due to their participation in a popular uprising last year. Many hoped the five-day visit of the little-loved monarch at least would lead to the release of their family member.
The limited amnesty therefore provoked disappointment. "Only 30 Sahrawi prisoners were released by the Moroccan government," while "37 others are still sequestrated in the Moroccan prisons," added to "more than 500 disappeared and 151 prisoners of war, whose fate remains unknown," yesterday said Khalil Sidi Emhamed, a Minister in the exiled Sahrawi government, based in Algerian refugee camps.
As the Sahrawi prisoners were released from the infamous Black Jail of El Aaiun, the capital of Western Sahara, they were given a warm and joyful welcome by demonstrators and family members, many waving the outlawed flag of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Celebrations broke out in front of the Black Jail and in other Western Sahara towns - including Dakhla, Smara and Boujdour - as the released prisoners found their way home.
In El Aaiun, however, the joyful crowd yesterday was met by officers of Morocco's secret police, hindering them from receiving the released prisoners. There were clashes between the protesters and police agents, which according to Sahrawi activists not wanting their names published, resulting in two injured civilians, including one Sahrawi woman.
The celebrations later turned into anti-Moroccan protests and riots in both El Aaiun and Smara, where the flag-waving Sahrawis were met by armed Moroccan police troops. Activists started throwing stones at the police, which needed several hours to get the situation under control.
According to the unnamed Sahrawi activist based in El Aaiun, the celebrating protesters were met with violence by the police. During and after yesterday's clashes, more than 90 persons had been arrested and more than 40 persons, including Moroccan policemen, had been injured.
During the evening, calm returned to El Aaiun, but only for a few hours. During the night, as electricity was cut for unknown reasons during 25 minutes, activists were again animated to take to the streets. Hundreds walked through the dark centre of El Aaiun, shouting "no to autonomy, yes to independence," in reference to the current Moroccan diplomatic initiative to have the UN accept an autonomy plan. As lights were turned on, activists peacefully returned home.
Moroccan authorities have not commented on the riots in Western Sahara, but the kingdom's official news agency MAP, claims that the clashes were of a much lesser scale than alleged by several Sahrawi sources. According to MAP, there had only been one incident in the north-eastern town of Smara, where "agitators" had destroyed the celebrations of a family receiving its released son, Othmani El-loud Emman.
"Six persons, including policemen, were injured by the assailants, four of whom were arrested," MAP reports, holding this was the only incident in Western Sahara during Sunday. The official Moroccan news agency further claims that residents of Smara generally had opposed "these provocations" and urged the police to arrest the activists. Sahrawi sources instead claim the "brutal police intervention" in Smara even went against the family of the released prisoner, whose mother had been injured, causing popular uproar.
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