RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Up to 1 million Moroccans marched through their capital Sunday to protest the U.N. secretary-general's remarks about the contested Western Sahara territory.
It was an unusually massive show of public anger for Morocco, and was encouraged by leading political parties.
Morocco considers the vast mineral-rich Western Sahara as its "southern provinces" and took offense when U.N. 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 on Sunday 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.
The U.N. 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 Ki-moon "to come and see the reactions of Moroccans on the streets."