The immigrants, of nine nationalities including Gambian and Cameroonian, were found in small groups in a region of the Western Sahara controlled by Polisario, not far from a Moroccan military defence wall that divides the annexed territory in two, said Mohamed Kheddad, Polisario coordinator for a UN force known as Minurso.

Of the Africans, 48 are Gambian and 18 Cameroonian, Kheddad said on Sunday, speaking in the town of Bir Lahlou in the Western Sahara, situated 220km southwest of the Algerian town of Tindouf.

Several of the immigrants said that dozens of others were still in the territory's desert.

The Polisario Front, which seeks independence for the Western Sahara, is continuing to search for more immigrants, Kheddad said.

Strained relations

The movement said on Friday it had located hundreds of people in the Western Sahara desert, driven out of Morocco by security forces.

"Algeria is gathering together candidates for clandestine immigration in the region of Tindouf in order to make it a propaganda tool in the Sahara conflict"

Driss Jettou,
Moroccan prime minister

Morocco has recently expelled at least 2000 immigrants, sparking concern from international human rights groups and aid organisations about the conditions and speed of the operation.

Difficulties are compounded as Morocco has strained relations with Algiers since the latter has backed the Polisario Front during more than a decade of political impasse following a truce in 1992, and hosts Polisario's Saharawi government in exile.

Propaganda

Moroccan Prime Minister Driss Jettou said on Sunday that Algeria was using the situation as a "propaganda tool".

"Algeria is gathering together candidates for clandestine immigration in the region of Tindouf in order to make it a propaganda tool in the Sahara conflict," Jettou said at a news conference in Rabat.

Driss Jettou said Morocco was
fulfilling its obligations

The Moroccan prime minister said the kingdom was fulfilling its obligations to deal with illegal immigrants on its territory.

Jettou said: "It is out of the question that Morocco will let the enemies of its territorial integrity take advantage of the misery and disarray of human beings seeking to enter Europe in the hope of a better life there.

 

"It is out of the question also that Morocco would tolerate the kind of actions that harm its highest interests, especially its territorial integrity," he added.

 

In the week since it started repatriating illegal immigrants, Morocco has airlifted at least 2000 West Africans to their countries of origin, according to a count by AFP, based on official figures.