Seven killed in Western Sahara clashes

RABAT - The death toll from clashes after a soccer match in Western Sahara on Sunday has reached seven, Morocco's MAP official news agency reported on Tuesday, in the desert territory's worst bout of violence since November.

A resident in Dakhla, 1,800 km (1,100 miles) south of Rabat and the site of the match, told Reuters clashes between one group of residents of Sahrawi origin and another of Moroccan origin continued until early on Tuesday.

Another resident said the clashes spread through the Atlantic coast town despite police efforts to disperse crowds with teargas, and that troops had been deployed in two neighbourhoods to restore order.

Morocco annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, in 1975, and since then it has been the subject of a dispute between the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front, an independence movement backed by neighbouring Algeria.

"We have been living in fear since Sunday... the population, whether it is Sahrawi or Moroccan, is caught in the middle. We can't go out," the first resident, who asked to be identified as Hassan, said by telephone from Dakhla.

The second, Khaled Aniba, said several four-wheel-drive vehicles carrying military personnel had deployed to pacify two Dakhla neighbourhoods, home to the two groups.

"The anti-riot police fired teargas canisters yesterday to end the clashes between the two sides, but this did not prevent some of them from reaching other parts of the city and attacking anyone who looked like their enemy," Aniba said.

"People have had their cars and shops burned. I've seen six charred cars," he added.

Moroccan officials said the clashes broke out when supporters leaving the stadium started throwing stones at the opposing team's fans.

They said opportunistic criminals then joined in, attacking passers-by with sticks and knives. Local authorities had arrested five people suspected of involvement in the clashes, MAP reported.

A resident, who asked not to be named, said the fighting started when a group of Moroccans attacked a young Sahrawi during the game.

"When it degenerated into clashes between Sahrawis and Moroccans, the police did not intervene... there is a protest now in the city by residents who demand that security be restored," said the resident.

Western Sahara is a sparsely populated tract of desert about the size of Britain. Morocco says the territory should come under its sovereignty, while the exiled Polisario Front says it is an independent state.

The Polisario Front waged a guerrilla war against Moroccan forces until the United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991. Since then, several rounds of talks have failed to produce a deal on Western Sahara's status.

The latest clashes were the deadliest in the territory since November, when Moroccan authorities said 11 security officials were among 13 people who died in violence in the main city, Laayoune.

That violence erupted after Moroccan security forces dismantled a protest camp where thousands of residents had gathered to demand better living conditions.

In February, MAP reported that two Moroccans were killed in Dakhla after clashes with Sahrawis during a music festival.

"The situation in Dakhla has remained very tense since then... the football match was the straw that broke the camel's back," said a local official on condition of anonymity.

The match was between Western Sahara side Mouloudia Dakhla and Chabab Mohammadia, a team from a city near Casablanca in Morocco. An official source in Western Sahara told Reuters two security officials were among the seven killed.

MAP said three of the victims were killed when they were run over by "ex-convicts aboard a four-wheel-drive vehicle".

Moroccan Communication Minister Khalid Naciri likened the violence to "hooliganism that can happen anywhere around the world" but did not dismiss possible political motivations.

"Some people may be seeking to take advantage of these riots to spread instability," Naciri told Reuters by telephone. He declined to comment on whether troops had been deployed.


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