By Souhail Karam
RABAT (Reuters) - Twelve activists from the disputed Western Sahara began a 48-hour hunger strike inside a prison in the Moroccan-controlled city of Laayoune to denounce their detention conditions, fellow activists said.
Morocco's Communication Minister Mustafa el-Khalfi said authorities were not aware of the hunger strike but he strongly denied what the two activists said was a heavy security deployment around Laayoune on the day a U.S. human right group was expected to arrive in the former Spanish colony.
The decades-old dispute over the region's status pits Morocco, offering semi-autonomy to the Western Sahara it considers part of its territory, against the Algeria-backed Sahrawi Polisario Front, which demands self-determination.
Morocco annexed the territory in 1975 after Spanish forces withdrew, and Polisario began a guerrilla war against Moroccan forces until the United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991. Attempts to reach a lasting deal since then have foundered due to deep rifts and regional rivalry between Algiers and Rabat.
The 12 have been sentenced to three years in prison for involvement in clashes with Moroccan nationals that killed seven people last year in Dakhla, in the Western Sahara.
The hunger strike coincides with the expected arrival of a delegation from the U.S.-based Robert F. Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights "to assess the human rights situation on the ground", the center said.
The Sahrawi sources said police deployed along Laayoune's main Smara boulevard and also around the house of prominent Sahrawi human right activist Aminatou Haidar.
"There is no siege in Laayoune ... These are baseless allegations. Things are normal and quiet from the information we have gathered in the ground," said Khalfi.
"We want the Kennedy centre to see for themselves the reality of things, the objective, unbiased reality. What we expect of them and other organizations is to see the reality and make an objective and unbiased view of the situation, not only in the Moroccan (controlled) Sahara but also in the camps," he added in reference to Polisario's rear base south of Algeria.
An eyewitness said there was a substantial presence of police in Laayoune but he noted that it has been the same since 2010 when clashes between Moroccan security forces and Sahrawi residents killed 13 people near the same city.
(Reporting by Souhail Karam; Editing by Jon Hemming)