Jamie Smyth in Brussels The Irish Times 22 May 2006
EU: The exiled political leaders of Western Sahara have warned that a €144-million fisheries deal agreed by the EU and Morocco could spark civil unrest in the territory.
The Polisario Front has also urged Ireland - a key supporter of Western Sahara's right to self-determination at the UN - to oppose the deal in a vote by EU fisheries ministers today.
The Polisario Front is opposing the deal because Morocco has included access to the territorial waters of Western Sahara for EU fishermen. This was agreed despite a ruling by the International Court of Justice in 1975 that the indigenous nomadic Saharans, known as the Saharawi people, have the right to self-determination.
"What we are asking all states, including Ireland, is to vote against this illegal agreement," said Mohamed Sidati, a member of the national secretariat of the Polisario Front.
"The Western Sahara people will not benefit from this deal, which amounts to exploitation of our resources.
"There is a possibility of a new armed uprising if the situation worsens, if human rights continue to be violated, if the resources of Western Sahara are stolen," he said.
Western Sahara is a mainly desert area in northwest Africa sandwiched between Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania. Its coastal waters are abundant in fish and have long been a target for Spanish fishermen.
When its former colonial ruler, Spain, withdrew in 1976, both Morocco and Mauritania invaded the territory, claiming it as their own against the wishes of the indigenous nomadic Saharans. The invasion occurred despite the International Court of Justice ruling.
The Saharawi, who had formed their own political organisation, called Polisario, in 1973, later fought a guerrilla war against the Moroccans (Mauritania withdrew in 1978) until 1991 when a UN-brokered ceasefire was announced.
About 150,000 Saharawi people still live in atrocious conditions in refugee camps in Algeria. Several attempts by the UN to organise a referendum in the territory have been rebuffed by Morocco.
Despite recent concerns raised by Sweden and Finland about the deal, ministers are expected to vote in favour of it today.
Under the terms of the agreement, EU fishermen will benefit from a new annual quota of 60,000 tonnes of fish from Moroccan waters for four years. Irish fishermen will get an extra 7,500 tonnes quota of pelagics - fish species such as mackerel and sardines - from the deal.
The biggest beneficiaries from the EU-Morocco pact are Spain, France and Portugal, which will have the right to send 119 vessels to fish in Western Saharan waters. Spain, which has the biggest fishing fleet in Europe, lobbied strongly for the deal.
A spokesman for the Government said Ireland would vote in favour of the deal today but also issue a statement supporting Western Sahara's right to self-determination.
Mr Sidati said he hoped Ireland would change its mind.
Morocco occupies the major part of its neighbouring country, Western Sahara. Entering into business deals with Moroccan companies or authorities in the occupied territories gives an impression of political legitimacy to the occupation. It also gives job opportunities to Moroccan settlers and income to the Moroccan government. Western Sahara Resource Watch demands foreign companies leave Western Sahara until a solution to the conflict is found.
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