France's Hollande steps in to calm diplomatic row with Morocco

PARIS (REUTERS) - President Francois Hollande telephoned Morocco's King Mohammed VI to try to calm a diplomatic row over two human rights incidents that caused outrage in the former French colony.

Rabat summoned the French ambassador to protest on Saturday after police went to its embassy in Paris in an attempt to question the head of Morocco's domestic intelligence as an alleged accomplice to torture, following lawsuits filed against him in France by Moroccan activists.

Hours later, a second row flared over comments ascribed by an activist to a French ambassador in the United States suggesting Paris was turning a blind eye to abuses of human rights by Morocco in the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony which Rabat annexed in 1975.

The incidents are a rare diplomatic spat between France and Morocco, a strong ally which has faced criticism from rights groups over police abuses, press freedom and judicial independence.

"The president wanted to send a message of confidence and friendship to Morocco," a French diplomatic source said after Monday's telephone call. "The misunderstandings have been cleared up." There was no official comment from Rabat on the call.

Paris initially played down the police action over the lawsuits as "regrettable", but Mr Hollande stepped in personally after Morocco postponed a planned trip by his special envoy for the climate.

That was followed by media reports of comments by Spanish actor Javier Bardem, an activist on Western Sahara, which is at the centre of a tussle between Rabat and the separatist Polisario Front.

The newspaper Le Monde quoted BMr ardem as telling a Paris news conference on Feb. 17 that a French ambassador had told him that "Morocco was a mistress with whom we sleep every night even if we aren't especially in love with her, but that we must defend.

In other words, we turn a blind eye."

France has long supported Rabat's position on Western Sahara due to historical and business relations despite allegations by rights groups that Morocco is using excessive force against demonstrators and activists in the region.

A foreign ministry official denied the ambassador made the remarks, but the report outraged Rabat. Moroccan government spokesman Mustapha Khalfi called the comments "hurtful" and harmful to bilateral ties and urged Paris to do more than just deny them.

The spat is the latest to hit sensitive relations between France and its former North African colonies.

In December, Mr Hollande was forced to apologise to Algeria after joking at a dinner with the CRIF Jewish organisation that his interior minister had been lucky to return safe and sound from an official visit to Algiers.

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