RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Morocco has expelled 19 foreigners from the annexed territory of the Western Sahara, saying they were journalists who entered without permission.
The action, which underlines Morocco's intense sensitivity over criticism of its policies in the mineral rich region, came as activists calling for the independence of the Western Sahara were preparing to mark Thursday as two years since deadly clashes outside the regional capital, Laayoune.
Spanish media reported that most of those expelled were activists, not journalists.
Morocco's Interior Ministry issued a statement — carried by the state news agency on Wednesday — that quoted local authorities as saying the 15 Spanish and four Norwegian journalists planned to meet with "separatist" elements in Laayoune to engage in demonstrations on the anniversary of the clashes.
"These journalists entered the national territory without revealing their true identities, pretending to be on holiday in the kingdom," said the statement, which added that they had violated the laws governing foreign journalists.
On Nov. 8, 2010, Moroccan police clashed with thousands of locals at the tent city in Gdeim Izek who were protesting government discrimination. Human Rights Watch said 11 police and two civilians were killed and hundreds of civilians were beaten and detained. Morocco expelled three Spanish journalists following their coverage.
Morocco occupied and annexed the mineral-rich Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, in November 1975 after the Spanish withdrew. The Polisario Front declared independence on behalf of the inhabitants, the nomadic Saharawi people, and battled the Moroccan army until a 1991 truce brokered by the U.N. The dispute is one of the world's longest unresolved conflicts.
The U.N. decreed that a referendum should be held for the locals to decide if they want independence, but the Moroccans have instead advanced a plan to give them wide-ranging autonomy.
Nine rounds of negotiations between the Polisario and the government have been unsuccessful, and in May Morocco criticized the special U.N. envoy, former U.S. diplomat Christopher Ross, for being biased and called for his replacement.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon personally called Moroccan King Mohammed VI in August to resolve the situation, and Ross returned to the Western Sahara for meetings last week.
Activists have criticized the government for repressing locals in the region, and in September officials from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights visited and said they were followed during their visit by secret police, physically prevented from observing an attack on peaceful protesters, and verbally abused.
Last week, Morocco recalled its ambassador to Ireland for consultations after the Polisario's leader met with top Irish officials in Dublin on Oct. 25.