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Morocco under fire after deadly crackdown on football fans in Western Sahara

A 24-year-old English teacher was killed in the violence that also left scores injured, prompting Rabat to be accused of creating an 'atmosphere of oppression and horror'
English teacher Sabah Osman, 24, was hit by two police vehicles and later died from her injuries (MEE/Mohamed Dchira)

Morocco has been accused of creating an “atmosphere of oppression and horror” in Western Sahara, after a young woman was killed and scores were seriously injured amid a violent crackdown that began as people celebrated Algeria’s victory in the Africa Cup of Nations.

The violence has prompted the Polisario Front, a liberation movement that represents Western Sahara’s indigenous Sahrawi people, to ask the United Nations Security Council to hold Morocco to account for carrying out what it described as a “systematic repression policy” in the disputed territory.

On 19 July, Sahrawi football fans flooded the wide Smara Boulevard, the main route through Laayoune, the territory’s largest city, to chant “un, deux, trois, viva Algeria” and raise the Algerian flag, shortly after the country’s national team beat Senegal in the cup final.

As the key backer of the Polisario Front’s demands for self-determination, Algeria is viewed positively by many Sahrawis and also hosts tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees.

With clashes breaking out after previous games, police had set up barricades on the boulevard before the match and were present at cafes where the game was being shown. 

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But the mood began to change when some fans began to wave the Polisario flag and chant calls for self-determination, a long-standing Sahrawi demand rejected by Morocco, which controls the vast majority of the desert territory.

Mansour Mohamed Moloud, an eyewitness and activist with the pro-Sahrawi Nushatta Foundation, told MEE that after failing to move the protesters on, police began to hurl stones at them, with protestors responding in kind. 

“At the beginning there was provocation by police. They tried to make demonstrators move. Suddenly they started stoning people, which led to the same reaction from protestors,” Moloud said.

Clashes continued through the night and into the early morning, Moloud said, as security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets, and used water cannons.

Footage circulated of the clashes shows the moment armed security forces moved forward in a line to take control of the boulevard, throwing projectiles. 

'I felt angry, this was the beginning of her life. The conflict is killing us'

- Mansour Mohamed Moloud, Nushatta Foundation

The crack of gunfire can be heard in the same video released by the Nushatta Foundation, which documents abuses in the territory and claimed police fired rubber bullets and live rounds.

Bloodied bodies and protestors evading the choking smoke of tear gas canisters can be seen in other footage.

At around 1am (12.00 GMT), English teacher Sabah Osman, 24, was hit by two police vehicles on the boulevard. By the time an ambulance reached her, she was dead. 

Moloud, who knew her personally, believes she was deliberately targeted, as police struggled to quell the demonstrators. “I saw them trying to run over demonstrators,” he said. 

“I felt angry, this was the beginning of her life. The conflict is killing us.”

According to the Foundation, at least 200 people have been left injured, with many in a critical condition, including a man who was also hit by a security forces vehicle.

Six homes have been raided and more than a dozen people, including four minors, have been arrested since the unrest, the Foundation said. Four have been released while 10 await trial.  

Moloud, who claimed this was the worst violence to rock the territory in several years, said that activists have gone into hiding.

“People are scared, they have stopped walking in the streets, they are hiding. Everyone is switching off their phones,” he said.

'Dangerous act'

The violence comes amid an impasse in UN-led negotiations aimed at resolving competing claims for the territory dubbed “Africa’s last colony”.

Morocco considers the Western Sahara, rich in fish and phosphates, as part of its “southern provinces", after Rabat invaded and occupied it months after colonial Spain pulled out in 1975. 

A ceasefire in 1991 brought an end to the war between Morocco and the Polisario Front with the creation of MINURSO, a United Nations peacekeeping force, which has yet to deliver on its stated mandate to implement a referendum on self-determination.

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The Polisario-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic retains control of a sparsely populated third of the territory and enjoys modest recognition from the international community. 

While Morocco’s claim has not been formally recognised by any state, it enjoys strong support from France and from the United States, who sit as permanent members on the UN Security Council.

In May, the peace process was dealt a blow when Horst Kohler, the UN envoy spearheading the peace process, left his post after two rounds of negotiations in Geneva. The Polisario claimed he left due to political pressure and not health concerns, which he had claimed. A third round of negotiations was expected to take place in the summer.

In a letter to the Security Council, Polisario Front representative at the United Nations Mohamed Sidi Omar, described Morocco’s crackdown on the football fans “as part of its systematic policy of repression in the occupied Western Sahara” and called on the body to “hold Morocco accountable for the consequences of this dangerous act and for the heinous crimes perpetrated by its security forces against the Sahrawi population”.

'The response of the Moroccan authorities is always so violent...an atmosphere of oppression and horror reins in the territory for days, weeks and in many cases for months.'

- Melainin Lakhal, diplomat

Omar called on MINURSO peacekeepers to “operate in line with basic standards applicable to all other UN peacekeeping operations, including having a capacity to monitor, protect and report on the human rights situation.”

Melainin Lakhal, a Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) diplomat based in Botswana, who is also a survivor of an enforced disappearance in Moroccan prisons, told MEE: “The response of the Moroccan authorities is always so violent that there are always serious casualties and an atmosphere of oppression and horror reins in the territory for days, weeks and in many cases for months.

“Morocco cannot enjoy impunity forever. It is a military force of occupation abusing the rights and resources of another country and should be stopped,” he said.

On Tuesday, Mohamed Salem Ould Salek, the SADR's foreign minister, urged the UN to call a referendum in the territory, and accused Paris of blocking progress in the Security Council.

“The international community must be aware that it is very difficult to keep the Sahrawi people waiting and that this has created very deep frustration among all Sahrawis,” he said.

“This must be taken into consideration before it is too late.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.