Morocco yields to pressure, activist back home

A Western Sahara independence activist returned home on Friday after a hunger strike at a Spanish airport, defusing a diplomatic spat between Spain and Morocco and potentially strengthening separatist campaigners.

Aminatou Haidar went on hunger strike 32 days ago after Moroccan authorities refused her entry when she returned home from a trip abroad, confiscated her passport and put her on a flight to Lanzarote, one of Spain's Canary Islands.

After returning to Western Sahara's capital Laayoune on a special flight, Haidar said she had made no concession to Morocco to obtain the right to return.

"There were no conditions. My positions cannot be sold at auction," she told French television channel France 24 by telephone, speaking through an interpreter.

Rabat had initially refused to accept Haidar, who is campaigning for Western Sahara's independence from Morocco, back unless she swore loyalty to King Mohammed. The king's father took control of most of Western Sahara in 1975 after Spanish colonial forces withdrew from the territory.

A Moroccan analyst said Rabat let Haidar return to her desert homeland after international pressure and could now be forced to make concessions to the independence movement.

"Morocco gave in to the pressure in Spain, Europe and the United States. It accepted her return after they pushed themselves in a corner by stressing they would not let her back," said Ali Anzoula, an editor of the daily Al Jarida al Oula.

Anzoula, who writes about the Western Sahara conflict, said the Polisario Front may seek to win more concessions from Rabat in future rounds of U.S. sponsored peace talks, such as a U.N. role in monitoring human rights issue in the territory.

The Moroccan government says Haidar was allowed back home out of "the country's tolerance and generosity" and after several states intervened on her behalf.

France, the United States and several other Western states worked to help Haidar return home.

Image "Stained"

Left-leaning Spanish daily El Pais also said the crisis would weaken Rabat's stand in negotiations with Polisario over the future of the territory.

"Morocco has seriously weakened the credibility of its proposal of the autonomy of Western Sahara with its treatment of Haidar," wrote El Pais in reference to Morocco's offer to give Western Sahara autonomy rather independence as claimed by Algerian-backed Polisario Front.

As Haidar's health deteriorated, her hunger strike became an embarrassment for both Rabat and Madrid, which rely on each other to help fight illegal immigration and drug trafficking.

Human rights groups abroad said her case showed Morocco's pledges to improve its human rights record were hollow. Media and the opposition accused Spain's government of incompetence by allowing the Moroccans to send her to Spain.

"The Spanish government has handled this crisis badly, but much worse has been the behavior of the regime in Rabat which caused the problem by violating her human rights," said the right-leaning Spanish newspaper El Mundo.

Taoufik Bouachrine, editor of Morocco's leading Akhbar al Youm al Maghribia daily, said the hunger strike "stained" Morocco's human rights image abroad.

"Morocco's government leaders failed to understand that the most sacrosanct issue now in the world is the respect of human rights. They put Morocco's sovereignty first and collided with its main partners abroad on the rights question," he said.

But for sympathizers of the Polisario Front in Western Sahara, there was no doubt that Haidar won a battle against Rabat's government.

"Her return is a great victory and by her coming back she had defeated Morocco's campaign to prevent her from living in her homeland," said Mohamed Moutawakeel, a member of the Sahrawi rights group Codesa which is chaired by Haidar.

[Source: By Lamine Ghanmi, Reuters, Rabat, 18Dec09]

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