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Police catch Western Sahara human rights campaigners

Moroccan police arrested three leading Western Sahara human rights campaigners after weeks of crackdowns against students and activists from the territory.

Brahim Elansari, a member of the Saharawi Association for Human Rights Victims, was arrested Sunday afternoon after police stopped his car in Laayoune, Western Sahara's main city, said the organization's president, Brahim Dahane. Fellow activist Hassana Douihi, who was riding with Elansari, was also arrested.

Shortly afterward, police arrested Naama Asfari, president of the Paris-based Committee for the Respect of Human Freedoms and Rights in Western Sahara, Dahane said.

Police in Laayoune, reached by telephone, said they could not comment on the arrests.

The three remained in police custody Sunday evening, said Dahane, adding that police had visited the homes of three other human rights activists seeking to arrest them, but that the men were not there.

For weeks, Moroccan authorities have been executing a crackdown in Western Sahara and at Moroccan universities against activists and students among the territory's native population, who are known as Saharawis. Dozens have been injured and arrested in the sweeps.

Moroccan authorities are targeting prominent Saharawis in an attempt to quell growing pro-independence sentiment, Dahane said.

Saharawis in Laayoune held a demonstration on Sunday morning calling for independence for Western Sahara, a desert territory invaded by Morocco after colonizer Spain left in 1975.

The Polisario Front, an Algerian-backed independence movement, fought back until the United Nations brokered a cease-fire in 1991 aimed at allowing an independence referendum, which never happened.

Morocco rejects a referendum and has agreed to talk with Polisario under U.N. auspices about Western Sahara's future. The talks are expected to begin next month.

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