Morocco expels eight Europeans supporting Western Sahara prisoners

RABAT (Reuters) - Moroccan authorities have expelled eight European activists who they said were in the country to undermine public order by supporting prisoners from Western Sahara protests in 2010, the interior ministry said on Thursday.

A Moroccan military court jailed 24 Western Saharan activists accused of killing members of the security forces who stormed a protest camp, known as Gdeim Izik, in the disputed territory in November 2010.

Moroccan authorities say 10 security officers, a firefighter and two civilians were killed and dozens injured when authorities dismantled the camp, where thousands of Western Saharans, known as Sahrawis, were protesting.

The 21 who remain in jail have been on hunger strike for more than a month to protest their sentences, rights groups said.

Tensions over Western Sahara rose last month when Morocco decided to expel members of a U.N. mission there over comments by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that Rabat deemed offensive.

The interior ministry said two French nationals, one Belgian and five Spaniards, representing the “so-called international collective” supporting prisoners of Gdeim Izik, had been expelled by Rabat city authorities.

Joseph Breham, a member of the group and a lawyer for one of the prisoners, said the group had been arrested when they arrived at their hotel in Rabat on Wednesday.

“Authorities were planning to expel them by boat via Tangiers, but when they protested they finally put them on a plane from Rabat airport on Thursday morning,” Breham told Reuters by phone.

Spain summoned the Moroccan ambassador for an explanation, expressing concern about the manner of the Spaniards’ expulsion.

Eight of the prisoners are serving life sentences. Three have already served their terms and been freed.

National and international rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have been urging the Moroccan authorities to free or retry the group.

Morocco took over most of the desert territory from Spain in 1975. That triggered a guerrilla war with the Sahrawi people’s Polisario Front, which says the territory belongs to it.

The United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991 and sent in its MINURSO mission to help organise a referendum on the future of the territory. But the sides have been deadlocked on how to proceed ever since.

Additional reporting by Sonya Dowsett in Madrid; Editing by Patrick Markey and Kevin Liffey