Clashes between Moroccan security forces and protesters in Western Sahara have killed at least six people after authorities raided the site of the disputed territory's largest anti-government protest in decades.
Moroccan officials said Monday that protesters killed four police officers and a firefighter, while the pro-independence Polisario Front said Moroccan forces killed a 26-year-old activist.
Fighting began when Moroccan troops broke up a camp of thousands of tents erected a month before near the desert city of Laayoune to protest against deteriorating living standards in the region. Several hundred people then moved into Laayoune, blocking roads, setting fire to cars and throwing stones at police.
Monday's early morning raid came hours before representatives from the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front met in New York for informal United Nations-sponsored talks aimed at ending the stalemate over the North African territory.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said it is "highly unfortunate" that the operation has affected the talks and called on all parties involved to exercise restraint in the days to come.
Morocco's 1975 annexation of the resource-rich former Spanish colony sparked a war between its forces and Polisario insurgents, who maintain Morocco has consistently violated the human rights of the territory's inhabitants, known as Sahrawis. Morocco, in turn, says Polisario forces have committed abuses at Sahrawi refugee camps in neighboring Algeria.
The latest tensions started in mid-October, when some Laayoune residents set up a tent camp east of the city. Last month, the U.N. secretary-general's special envoy for the Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, called the status quo "untenable."
Morocco is offering Western Sahara autonomy while Polisario, based in desert camps inside Algeria, says it wants a referendum on self-determination with independence as an option.
In April, the U.N. Security Council extended the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Western Sahara for another year. The mission is tasked with maintaining a 1991 U.N.-negotiated truce between Morocco and Polisario and organizing a referendum on the region's future. The two sides have had sporadic talks since 2007.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.