Rabat | Up to 1 million Moroccans marched through their capital to protest the UN secretary-general’s remarks about the contested Western Sahara territory. It was an unusually massive show of public anger for Morocco yesterday, and was encouraged by leading political parties. Morocco considers the vast mineral-rich Western Sahara as its southern provinces and took offense when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used the word occupation after a visit this month to refugee camps for the region’s native Sahrawis in southern Algeria.
Protesters yesterday packed the streets of Rabat after political parties, unions and non-governmental groups called for a national demonstration. Authorities claimed there were up to 3 million people taking part.
The Sahara is ours, some chanted. Marchers waved Moroccan flags and a banner showing King Mohammed VI. UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the UN was aware of the protests taking place in Morocco. While the Secretary-General acknowledges that there are differences of opinion on the Western Sahara issue, he continues to believe that, 40 years after, it is important to resolve this long-standing dispute and open the way to the return of the Sahrawi refugees to their homes. He said the secretary-general again called for genuine negotiations in good faith and without preconditions at each stop on his recent trip.
The UN has been trying for years to hold a referendum on independence for the territory, which was annexed by Morocco when Spain withdrew in 1975. Morocco proposes increased autonomy instead. Ban also called for renewed peace efforts during his trip, and plans a donors’ conference in the coming months.
The United Nations issued a response late Wednesday, saying Ban referred to the occupation of the territory because of the inability of Sahrawi refugees to return home under conditions that include satisfactory governance arrangements under which all Sahrawis can freely express their desires. Lahcen Daoudi, minister of higher education, appeared on state media imploring Ban to come and see the reactions of Moroccans on the streets.
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