BUSINESS

Moroccan king visits contested Western Sahara territory

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Moroccan King Mohammed VI presided over a ceremony in Western Sahara to launch a new development program on Saturday, the second day of his visit to mark the 40th anniversary of the country's annexation of the mineral-rich territory.

It is the king's first official visit to Western Sahara since 2006. In addition to commemorating the 1975 annexation Morocco calls the "Green March," the visit is part of a campaign to promote the country's decentralization plan and boost investment.

Mohammed VI's appearance on Saturday was attended by several government ministers and business leaders.

On Friday, he delivered a speech in the administrative capital of Laayoune, proposing a number of development projects, spanning from a port in the coastal city of Dakhla, to a railway connecting Marrakech to the contested town of Lagouira.

He also leveled critiques against the Algerian government and the Polisario Front.

"Where have the millions of dollars of humanitarian aid gone — more than 60 million euros ($65 million) a year?" Mohammed VI said in his speech.

"How can one explain the fact that the separatists' leaders are obscenely rich and have real estate and bank accounts in Europe and Latin America?" he added.

The Polisario Front, a pro-independence movement, released a statement describing the speech as a "dangerous, escalatory step."

The king's visit has sparked anger among Sahrawis in the territory, and in refugee camps outside Tindouf, Algeria, run by the Polisario Front.

On Thursday, Human Right Watch called for the release or retrial of 21 Sahrawis arrested for their role in the 2010 Gdeim Izik protest camp outside Laayoune.

Morocco occupied and annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, in November 1975 after Spain withdrew.