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Sunday, November 7, 1999 Published at 18:34 GMT

World: Africa

King proposes Western Sahara council

The King proposes an advisory council for Western Sahara

By Nick Pelham in Rabat

King Mohammed VI of Morocco has reacted to renewed clashes between police and demonstrators in the disputed Western Sahara, saying the unrest would be dealt with according to the rule of law.

The Polisario Front has said that the disturbances were an uprising for independence.

But the King, speaking in a televised address on the anniversary of Morocco's takeover of Western Sahara in 1975, said such interpretations were unjust.

'Brutal behaviour'

King Mohammed used the broadcast to unveil a package of reforms designed to end the first unrest of his reign.

He proposed holding elections for a royal advisory council in the disputed Western Sahara and he is offering the territory free transport for students and the handicapped.

But while the new king of Morocco appears to be offering concessions, his police are resorting to force.

Western diplomats in Rabat say the Moroccan security forces again used what they call brutal behaviour to disperse demonstrations one week ago, in El Ayun, the main town of Western Sahara.

Photographs from the troubled region portray what diplomats describe as systematic beatings of men and women, in many cases to the back of the head. Several victims had broken bones.

Diplomats say they are concerned that police brutality will exacerbate already high tensions in the region.


King Mohammed said that Morocco was committed to implementing a UN-sponsored peace plan on the future of the disputed Western Sahara so long as all would-be voters could take part in a planned referendum.

[ image: King Mohammed played down the unrest]
King Mohammed played down the unrest
"We are committed to the UN plan on the condition that all those who are entitled to take part in the referendum are allowed to do so," the King said.

A UN-brokered ceasefire ended a long war between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario in September 1991 and was due to be followed in January 1992 by a referendum on independence or integration with Morocco.

The referendum has been delayed due to differences between the two sides over who is eligible to vote.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a report to the Security Council last month an analysis of appeals filed by more than 79,000 would-be voters could take 10 to 12 months and affect the timetable for holding the referendum, now tentatively scheduled for 31 July 2000.

Polisario leader Mohamed Abdelaziz, has said he hopes the long-delayed referendum on the future of the territory will not be postponed again.


Last week students from the Western Sahara demonstrated outside parliament in Rabat to demand an end to what they called Moroccan military rule.

Ironically, the violence in El Ayun comes as Moroccan police have been responding to protests in the north with unprecedented restraint.

Since ascending the throne in July, King Mohammed has embarked on a programme of political liberalization and in his address on Saturday he reiterated his commitment to democracy and decentralisation.

Whether that will be enough to satisfy the demonstrators of the Western Sahara, however, still remains to be seen.

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