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W.Sahara Activist Returns Home After Hunger Strike


Western Saharan independence activist Aminatou Haidar rests at her home in Laayounne, in the disputed territory of Western Sahara December 18, 2009. (REUTERS/Stringer)

LAAYOUNE, Morocco - Western Sahara independence activist Aminatou Haidar returned to the disputed Moroccan territory on Friday, more than a month after staging a hunger strike that led to a standoff with Rabat.

The 42-year-old mother of two launched her protest on November 16 at Lanzarote airport, in Spain's Canary Islands, days after Moroccan authorities denied entry to her native Western Sahara.

She had been returning from a trip to the United States, where she had received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Prize in New York.

As her health deteriorated and the affair turned into a stalemate between Madrid and Rabat, French President Nicolas Sarkozy intervened this week, asking Morocco to give Haidar a passport, the French presidency said late Thursday.

Haidar, who campaigns for the independence of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony annexed by Morocco in 1975, was released late Thursday from hospital in Lanzarote, where she was admitted a day earlier at her own request, and taken to the airport for the flight home.

"This is a triumph for international law, for human rights, for international justice and for the cause" of Western Sahara, Haidar said in Lanzarote.

"The first thing I am going to do when I arrive will be to kiss my mother and my two children."

Her plane touched down shortly after midnight (0015 GMT) in Laayoune, the main city in Western Sahara.

Police said Haidar carried out entry requirements at the airport, stating on a form that she was "arriving in Morocco", before leaving in a car driven by her uncle.

The Moroccan foreign ministry confirmed Friday that Rabat had granted the request of "friendly countries and partners" for Haidar's return to Laayoune but said it remained firm on "total respect for Moroccan law by everybody without exception and on the integrity of the national territory."

Haidar was accompanied on her flight home by her personal doctor, who looked after her during the first days of her hunger strike before she refused medical treatment.

She had insisted on continuing her hunger strike despite her admission to intensive care late on Wednesday.

The activist had turned down a Spanish offer of citizenship or political asylum, and vowed to return to Western Sahara "dead or alive, with or without my passport." Related article: US 'pleased' at return home

Morocco had barred her return, saying she had rejected her Moroccan nationality and passport, an account she has denied.

Morocco annexed the Western Sahara following the withdrawal of colonial power Spain in the dying days of the regime of right-wing dictator Francisco Franco, sparking a war with the Algeria-backed Polisario Front movement.

The two sides agreed a ceasefire in 1991, but UN-sponsored talks on its future have since made no headway.

Morocco has pledged to grant the phosphate-rich territory widespread autonomy, but rules out independence.

The United States is "pleased" with Morocco's decision to readmit Haidar, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

"This humanitarian gesture is reflective of the true spirit and generosity of the Moroccan government and people, and underscores the urgency of finding a permanent solution to the Western Sahara conflict," she said.

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