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Thousands protest in Spain over Western Sahara's independence

PTI 17 Nov 2014, 9:28:03 AM IST

Madrid: Several thousand people demonstrated in Madrid today in support of independence for the disputed territory of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony in northwestern Africa.

About 3,000 protesters marched from Atocha railway station to the central Plaza de la Provincia behind a banner declaring "Sahara Free now!", an AFP photographer said.

Banners from many parts of Spain could be seen at the demonstration which also included live music and street performers dressed in the red, green, black and white of the traditional Saharawi flag.

"We believe the Sahawari people have to right to self-determination," said Jose Taboada, president of the Coordination of Spanish Associations of Solidarity with Western Sahara, which organised the protest and wants the territory to vote on independence.

"This is a scream to demand that the Spanish government intervene to help the Sahawaris to be able to vote to decide what they would like to be," he told AFP.

Western Sahara, larger than Britain but with a population of just 260,000, has lucrative phosphate reserves, rich fishing grounds and potentially oil.

Morocco took control of most of the territory in November 1975 when colonial power Spain withdrew, prompting a guerrilla war for independence that lasted until 1991 when the United Nations brokered a ceasefire and sent in a peacekeeping mission.

Many thousands of its people live in refugee camps across the border in Algeria.

Local Saharawi people have long campaigned for the right to self-determination. But most Moroccans now view the territory as a part of their kingdom.

Morocco wants talks about self-rule for the territory under Moroccan sovereignty, but the territory's Algerian-backed Polisario independence movement has demanded a referendum that would include the option of full independence.

The protest was staged to coincide with a European conference for support for the Saharawi people held in Madrid.