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Western Sahara conflict


Western Sahara conflict

Western Sahara conflict

Gathering of Saharawi troops, near Tifariti (Western Sahara), celebrating the 32nd anniversary to the Polisario Front (2005).
Date 1970 – present
(45 years)
Location Western Sahara, Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria
 Francoist Spain
 Mauritania (1975–1979)
Supported by:
 France (1977–78)
Polisario Front / SADR
Supported by:
 Algeria (1976)[1][2]
Commanders and leaders
Francisco Franco
Hassan II
Ahmed Dlimi 
Abdelaziz Bennani
Mokhtar Ould Daddah 
Mustafa Ould Salek
Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah
Valéry Giscard d'Estaing
Mohamed Abdelaziz
El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed 
Lahbib Ayoub
Brahim Ghali
Houari Boumediène (1976) 
Spain: 3,000 troops (1973)
Morocco: 30,000 (1976)[3] – 150,000 (1988)[4]
Mauritania: 3,000[5]–5,000[3] (1976) – 18,000 (1978)[6]
5,000 (1976)[7]
Casualties and losses
Morocco: 7,000 – 15,000 soldiers killed ;

2,155[8] – 2,300 captured[9]

Mauritania: 2,000 soldiers killed[10]
1,000–4,000 combatants killed; 200 captured
Total: 14,000–21,000 killed overall
40,000 (1976)[11] – 80,000 (1977)[12] refugees

The Western Sahara conflict or Polisario Front dispute for independence is an ongoing conflict between the Polisario Front of the Sahrawi people and the kingdom of Morocco. The conflict is the continuation of the past insurgency by Polisario against the Spanish colonial forces in 1973–1975 and the subsequent Western Sahara War between the Polisario and Morocco (1975–1991). Today the conflict is dominated by unarmed civil campaigns of the Polisario Front and their self-proclaimed SADR state to gain fully recognized independence for Western Sahara.

The conflict escalated after the withdrawal of Spain from the Spanish Sahara in accordance with the Madrid Accords. Beginning in 1975, the Polisario Front, backed by Algeria, waged a 16-year-long war for independence against Mauritania and Morocco. In February 1976, the Polisario Front declared the establishment of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which was not admitted into the United Nations, but won limited recognition by a number of other states. Following the annexation of Western Sahara by Morocco and Mauritania in 1976, and the Polisario Front's declaration of independence, the UN addressed the conflict via a resolution reaffirming the right to self-determination of the Sahrawi people.[13] In 1977, France intervened, as the conflict reached its peak intensity. In 1979, Mauritania withdrew from the conflict and territories, leading to a stalemate through most of the 1980s. After several more engagements between 1989 and 1991, a cease-fire agreement was reached between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan government. At the time, most of the Western Sahara territory remained under Moroccan control, while the Polisario controlled some 20% of the territory in its capacity as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, with additional pockets of control in the Sahrawi refugee camps along the Algerian border. At present, these borders are largely unchanged.

Despite multiple peace initiatives through the 1990s and early 2000s, the conflict reemerged as the "Independence Intifada" in 2005; a series of disturbances, demonstrations and riots, which broke out in May 2005 in the Moroccan-held portions of Western Sahara, and lasted until November of that same year. In late 2010, the protests re-erupted in the Gdeim Izik refugee camp in Western Sahara. While the protests were initially peaceful, they were later marked by clashes between civilians and security forces, resulting in dozens of casualties on both sides. Another series of protests began on 26 February 2011, as a reaction to the failure of police to prevent anti-Sahrawi looting in the city of Dakhla, Western Sahara; protests soon spread throughout the territory. Though sporadic demonstrations continue, the movement had largely subsided by May 2011.

To date, large parts of Western Sahara are controlled by the Moroccan Government and known as the Southern Provinces, whereas some 20–25% of the Western Sahara territory remains controlled by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the Polisario state with limited international recognition. The questions of mutual recognition, establishment of a possible Sahrawi state and the large numbers of Sahrawi refugees displaced by the conflict are among the key issues of the ongoing Western Sahara peace process


  • Background 1
    • Spanish Sahara 1.1
    • Polisario Front 1.2
  • Conflict 2
    • Beginnings of armed struggle 2.1
    • Western Sahara War 2.2
    • Gdeim Izik and Arab Spring protests 2.3
  • Third parties 3
    • Algeria 3.1
    • Spain 3.2
    • Arab League 3.3
  • Peace process 4
    • Cease fire 4.1
    • Referendum and Houston agreement 4.2
    • Baker plan 4.3
    • Moroccan initiative and Manhasset negotiations 4.4
  • Current situation 5
    • Polisario controlled areas 5.1
    • Moroccan Wall 5.2
    • Human rights 5.3
  • See also 6
  • Further reading 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


Spanish Sahara

In 1884 Spain claimed a protectorate over the coast from Cape Bojador to Cap Blanc. Later, the Spanish extended their area of control. In 1958 Spain merged the previously separate districts of Saguia el-Hamra (in the north) and Río de Oro (in the south) to form the province of Spanish Sahara.

Raids and rebellions by the disappeared" its founder, Muhammad Bassiri, Sahrawi nationalism again swung towards militarism.

Polisario Front

In 1971 a group of young Sahrawi students in the universities of Morocco began organizing what came to be known as The Embryonic Movement for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro. After attempting in vain to gain backing from several Arab governments, including both Algeria and Morocco itself, the movement only succeeded in obtaining weak statements of support from Libya and Mauritania. As a result of this ambivalence, the movement eventually relocated to Spanish-controlled Western Sahara to start an armed rebellion.


Beginnings of armed struggle

The Polisario Front was formally constituted on 10 May 1973 in the Mauritanian city of Zouirate,[14] with the express intention of militarily forcing an end to Spanish colonization. Its first Secretary General was El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed. On 20 May he led the Khanga raid, the Polisario's first armed action, in which a Spanish post manned by a team of Tropas Nomadas (Sahrawi-staffed auxiliary forces) was overrun and a cache of rifles seized. The Polisario gradually gained control over large swaths of the Western Saharan desert, and its power grew steadily after early 1975 when the Tropas Nomadas began deserting en masse to the Polisario Front, bringing their weapons and training with them. At this point, the maximum extent of the Polisario Front's manpower included perhaps 800 men, but they were backed by a larger network of supporters. The 1975 United Nations visiting mission to Spanish Sahara, headed by Simeon Aké, concluded that Sahrawi support for independence (as opposed to Spanish rule or integration with a neighboring country) amounted to an "overwhelming consensus" and that the Polisario Front was by far the most powerful political force in the country.[15]

Western Sahara War

The Western Sahara War was an armed conflict, lasting from 1975 to 1991, fought primarily between the Polisario Front and Morocco. The conflict erupted after the withdrawal of Spain from the Spanish Sahara in accordance with the Madrid Accords, by which it agreed to give administrative control of the territory to Morocco and Mauritania. The Polisario Front, backed by Algeria and Libya, desiring instead the establishment an independent Sahrawi state in the territory, fought both Mauritania and Morocco in quick succession, in an attempt to drive their forces out of the region. In 1979, Mauritania withdrew its forces from the disputed territory, and the Polisario Front and Morocco reached a ceasefire agreement in 1991. The war resulted in somewhere between 14,000–21,000 casualties between both sides.. Some 40,000–80,000 Sahrawi refugees were displaced as a result of the conflict; at present, most still reside in various Sahrawi refugee camps throughout the Tindouf province of Algeria.

Gdeim Izik and Arab Spring protests

The Gdeim Izik protest camp was established in Western Sahara on 9 October 2010 and lasted into November, with related incidents occurring in the aftermath of its dismantlement on 8 November 2010. While protests were initially peaceful, they were later marked by clashes between civilians and security forces, ending with dozens killed and hundreds injured.

In 2011, new protests erupted again on 26 February, as a reaction to the failure of police to prevent anti-Sahrawi looting and rioting in the city of Dakhla, Western Sahara, and blossomed into protests across the territory. These protests are considered the Western Saharan branch of the Arab Spring series of popular demonstrations and uprisings. Despite an initial outburst of support, the 2011 protests largely subsided on their own by May 2011.

Third parties


Algeria sees itself as an "important actor" in the conflict,[16] and officially supports the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination. The efforts invested by Algeria in the Western Sahara conflict, especially at level of its international relations, are comparable to the ones of an involved party such as Morocco.

Morocco's position is that Algeria is part of the conflict and uses the Sahara issue for geopolitical interests that date from the Cold War, claiming that this country in its official communication to the United Nations "presents itself sometimes as 'a concerned party,' other times as an 'important actor,' or as a 'party' in the settlement of the dispute".[17] The United Nations has only ever officially considered Morocco and the Polisario Front parties to the conflict, however acknowledges that other interests may also be involved.

Although the United Nations officially considers Morocco and the Polisario Front as the main parties to the conflict, former UN Secretary-General Mr. Kofi Annan views Algeria as a stakeholder in the Western Sahara conflict and has invited Algeria, "to engage as a party in these discussions and to negotiate, under the auspices of my Kofi Annan's Personal Envoy".[18] In an interview with the Public Broadcasting Service, in August 2004, James Baker, former personal envoy of the United Nations Secretary to Western Sahara, identified Morocco and Algeria as being both the "two chief protagonists" of the conflict.[19] Some third parties have called for both Morocco and Algeria to negotiate directly to find a solution for the conflict.[20]

The refugee camps are located in Algeria and the country has armed, trained, and financed the Polisario for more than thirty years.[21][22] More than two thousand Moroccan prisoners of war were previously detained on Algerian soil in Polisario camps,[23] but all POWs have since been released.

In response to the Green March and the ongoing disputed status of Western Sahara, Algeria has expropriated the property of and forcibly expelled tens of thousands of Moroccan civilians since 1975.[24][25] This remains a source of much tension between the two countries.

Even though Algeria has no official claim to Western Sahara, some experts see that the Sahara conflict represents a domestic political issue for the country.[26][27] Stressing the role played by Algerian officers in allegedly interrogating and torturing the Moroccan POWs, France Libertés states in its report on The Conditions of Detentions of the Moroccan POWs Detained in Tindouf (Algeria) that "the involvement of Algeria in the conflict is well known".[28] In March 2003 Khaled Nezzar, an Algerian retired general, referred to the conflict as being an issue only between Morocco and Algeria.[29]

In January and February 1976 there were direct [29] Morocco claims to have captured "dozens of Algerian officers and non-commissioned officers and soldiers" during these confrontations, but has released them to Algerian authorities.[17]


In 2011, Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jiménez called for a U.N. committee to evaluate the security situation in the Polisario-controlled refugee camps in Tindouf (Algeria) and probe possible corruption in the distribution of international aid there.[30] The statement by Jiménez came two days after two Spanish aid workers and one Italian were kidnapped by suspected al-Qaeda members in Tindouf, which is under the control of Polisario Front, which seeks the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco.

Arab League

Efforts to gain support in the Arab World for the idea of a

  • In Western Sahara, a forgotten struggle The Washington Post video, 12 July 2013
  • Chronology of the Saharawi struggle (BBC)

External links

  1. ^ , L'Harmattan, 1982, ISBN2-85802-197-XMaurice Barbier, Le conflit du Sahara Occidental, p. 185, at Google Books
  2. ^ , ABC-CLIO, July 2011, ISBN978-1-59884-336-1Alexander Mikaberidze, Conflict and Conquest in the Islamic World: A Historical Encyclopedia, p. 96, at Google Books
  3. ^ a b "With the Polisario Front of Sahara". MERIP reports, JSTOR. 1976.  
  4. ^ Lewis, Paul (31 August 1988). "Sahara foes move to end their war".  
  5. ^ "Marruecos incrementa su presencia en Mauritania".  
  6. ^ Jose Ramón Diego Aguirre, Guerra en el Sáhara, Istmo, Colección Fundamentos, Vol. 124, 1991, Page 193
  7. ^ "North Africa: Shadow war in the Sahara".  
  8. ^ "Western Sahara, the facts".  
  9. ^ "El misterio de la guerra del Sáhara".  
  10. ^ J. David Singer, & Melvin Small (1982). Resort to Arms: International and Civil Wars, 1816–1980. Beverly Hills: Sage publications inc.  
  11. ^ Asistencia en favor de las víctimas saharauis. Revista Internacional de la Cruz Roja, 1, pp 83–83 (1976) (Spanish)
  12. ^ Western Sahara, Morocco and Algeria: Sahrawi refugees stateless for three decades Open Society Foundations
  13. ^ UN Resolution 3458. Question of Spanish Sahara 1–3
  14. ^ [1]
  15. ^ Tony Hodges, ed. (1983). Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War. Lawrence Hill Books. p. 199, referring to page 199 of the UN report.  
  16. ^ United Nations General Assembly A/55/997
  17. ^ a b Memorandum of the Kingdom of Morocco on the regional dispute on the Sahara September 24, 2004
  18. ^ United – Security Council. Report of the Secretary-General on the situation concerning Western Sahara. (s/2001/613 Paragraph 54)
  19. ^ Sahara Marathon: Host Interview Transcript
  20. ^ US Ambassador urges dialogue between Morocco and Algeria
  21. ^ The Polisario Front – Credible Negotiations Partner or After Effect of the Cold War and Obstacle to a Political Solution in Western Sahara?
  22. ^ ESISC is a Brussels-based commercial firm in the domain of counselling, including among its clients the Moroccan embassy in Belgium
  23. ^ The Conditions of Detentions of the Moroccan POWs Detained in Tindouf (Algeria)
  24. ^ "Telquel – Maroc/Algérie.Bluff et petites manœuvres" (in French). 
  25. ^ عمر الفاسي-الرباط (15 March 2006). جمعية لاسترداد ممتلكات المغاربة المطرودين من الجزائر (in Arabic). 
  26. ^ Khadija Mohsen-Finan Le règlement du conflit du Sahara occidental à l'épreuve de la nouvelle donne régionale
  27. ^ Monde Diplomatique Western Sahara Impasse. January 2006
  28. ^ France Libertés – The Conditions of Detentions of the Moroccan POWs Detained in Tindouf (Algeria). P. 12
  29. ^ a b United – France Libertés – The Conditions of Detentions of the Moroccan POWs Detained in Tindouf (Algeria). P. 12
  30. ^
  31. ^ a b Zunes, Stephen. "Algeria, the Maghreb Union, and the Western Sahara stalemate. – Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ) – Nbr. 173". Retrieved 22 March 2014. 
  32. ^ iBi Center. "NATO PA – Archives". Retrieved 13 November 2011. 
  33. ^ full text of the plan:
  34. ^ "News – Africa -". Reuters. 
  35. ^ "Morocco and Polisario Front to hold second meeting to resolve 32-year dispute" (PDF).  
  36. ^ Report of the Secretary General on the status of the negotiations on Western Sahara, 29 June 2007
  37. ^ "Western Sahara: UN-led talks end with parties pledging to step up negotiations". UN News Centre. Retrieved 9 January 2008. 
  38. ^ afrol News – W. Sahara talks continues
  39. ^ "Secretary-General appoints Peter van Walsum of the Netherlands as Personal Envoy for Western Sahara" (PDF). United Nations. Retrieved 13 August 2007. 
  40. ^ Cuadro de zonas de división del Sáhara Occidental (Spanish)
  41. ^ Numerous reports from the Official Portal of the Government of Morocco refer to the area as a "buffer zone".
  42. ^ "UNHCR Algeria Factsheet".  
  43. ^ Eric Goldstein; Bill Van Esveld, ed. (2008). Human Rights in Western Sahara and in the Tindouf Refugee Camps. Human Rights Watch. p. 216.  
  44. ^ Danielle Van Brunt Smith (August 2004). "FMO Research Guide, Western Sahara. IV. Causes and consequences". FMO, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. 
  45. ^ Deployment of MINURSO
  46. ^ Western Sahara Atlas Map – June 2006
  47. ^ a b c
  48. ^ The Conditions of Detentions of the Moroccan POWs Detained in Tindouf (Algeria)


  • The mission's final report is archived in the General Assembly Official Records.
  • United Nations Visiting Mission to Spanish Sahara, 1975, General Assembly, 30th Session, Supplement 23, UN DocumentA/10023/Rev.
  • Tony Hodges (1983), Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War, Lawrence Hill Books (ISBN 0-88208-152-7)
  • Anthony G. Pazzanita and Tony Hodges (1994), Historical Dictionary of Western Sahara, Scarecrow Press (ISBN 0-8108-2661-5)

Further reading

See also

The Western Sahara conflict has resulted in severe human rights abuses, most notably the aerial bombardments with Napalm and White phosphorus of the Sahrawi refugee camps, the exodus of tens of thousands of Sahrawi civilians from the country, and the forced expropriation and expulsion of tens of thousands of Moroccan expatriate civilians by the Algerian government in reaction to the Green March. The conflict has witnessed numerous violations of human rights and serious breaches of the Geneva convention on the part of all involved parties; the Polisario Front, the Moroccan government and the Algerian government among them.[48]

Human rights

As early as 1979, the idea of a defensive wall has been an obvious one for the Moroccan authorities. Constructed in six stages, from 1980 to 1987, five 'breaches' along the wall allow Moroccan troops the right of pursuit.[47] The Polisario call the Berm the "wall of shame" while Morocco calls it a "defensive wall", "wall of sand" or "security wall".[47]

The Western Sahara Berm, also known as the Moroccan Wall, is an approximately 2,700 km-long defensive structure consisting primarily of sand running through Western Sahara and the southeastern portion of Morocco. It acts as a separation barrier between the Moroccan-controlled areas and the Polisario-controlled section of the territory (the SADR). According to maps from MINURSO[45] or the UNHCR,[46] part of the wall extends several kilometers into internationally recognized Mauritanian territory. According to Pascal Bongard, program director at Geneva Call, between five and ten million land mines have been laid in the areas around the wall.[47]

Moroccan Wall

[44] In addition, the Polisario Front has a full autonomous control of the Sahrawi refugee camps. The refugee camps were set up in the Tindouf Province, Algeria in 1975–76 for the benefit of Sahrawi refugees fleeing from

The Polisario controls about 20–25% of the Western Sahara territory,[40] as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and claim sovereignty over the entire territory of Western Sahara. SADR was proclaimed by the Polisario Front on 27 February 1976, in Bir Lehlu, Western Sahara. Polisario calls the territories under its control the Liberated Territories or the Free Zone, while Morocco controls and administers the rest of the disputed territory and calls these lands its Southern Provinces. The SADR government considers the Moroccan-held territory occupied territory, while Morocco considers the much smaller SADR held territory to be a buffer zone.[41]

Polisario controlled areas

Current situation

On 30 April 2007, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1754, which both urged the involved parties to "enter into direct negotiations without preconditions and in good faith." and extended the MINURSO mission until 31 October 2007. As a result of the passage of this resolution, the parties involved met in Manhasset, New York to once again try and settle the dispute. The talks between the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front were considered the first direct negotiations in seven years between the two parties, and hailed as a landmark in the peace process.[35] Also present at the negotiations were the neighboring countries of Algeria and Mauritania, a nod to the role they play in the ongoing conflict. The first round of talks took place on 18–19 June 2007,[36] during which both parties agreed to resume talks on 10–11 August. After another inconclusive round of talks, the parties finally, on 8–9 January 2008, agreed on "the need to move into a more intensive and substantive phase of negotiations".[37] An additional round of talks was held from 18 to 19 March 2008, but once again no major agreement was reached.[38] The negotiations were supervised by Peter van Walsum, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's personal envoy for Western Sahara.[39] To date, all negotiations have failed to resolve the dispute.

In 2006 the Moroccan Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs (CORCAS) proposed a plan for the autonomy of Western Sahara and made visits to a number of countries to explain and gather support for their proposal. Citing the Spanish approach to regional autonomy, the Moroccan government plans to model any future agreement after the cases of the cases of the Canary Islands, Basque Country, Andalusia or Catalonia. The plan was presented to the UN Security Council in April 2007,[33] and has received the backing of the both the United States of America and France.[34]

Moroccan initiative and Manhasset negotiations

The Baker Plan (formally, Peace Plan for Self-Determination of the People of Western Sahara) was a United Nations initiative led by James Baker to grant self-determination to Western Sahara, and was formulated in the year 2000. It was intended to replace the Settlement Plan of 1991 and the Houston Agreement of 1997, which had effectively failed to make any lasting improvement. Since early 2005, the UN Secretary-General has not referred to the plan in his reports, and by now it seems largely dead. No replacement plan exists, however, and worries persist that the political vacuum will result in renewed fighting. Morocco continues to propose autonomy for the territory as the solution to the conflict, while the Polisario Front insists on nothing other than complete independence.

Baker plan

According to a NATO delegation MINURSO election observers stated in 1999 that "if the number of voters does not rise significantly the odds were slightly on the SADR side".[32] By 2001, the process had reached a stalemate, and the UN Secretary-General asked the parties for the first time to explore other solutions. Indeed, shortly after the Houston Agreement (1997), Morocco officially declared that it was "no longer necessary" to include an option of independence on the ballot, offering instead autonomy. Erik Jensen, who played an administrative role in MINURSO, wrote that neither side would agree to a voter registration in which they believed they were destined to lose.

Efforts by the UN special envoys to find common ground between both parties did not succeed. By 1999 the UN had identified about 85,000 voters, with nearly half of them in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara or Southern Morocco, and the others scattered between the Tindouf refugee camps, Mauritania and other locations throughout the world. The Polisario Front accepted this voter list, as it had done with the previous list presented by the UN (both of them originally based on the Spanish census of 1974), but Morocco refused. As rejected voter candidates began a mass-appeals procedure, the Moroccan govnermnet insisted that each application be scrutinized individually. Continuing disputes between the two factions once more brought the process to a halt.

The referendum, originally scheduled for 1992, was intended to give the local population of Western Sahara the option between independence or affirming integration with Morocco, but it quickly stalled. In 1997, the Houston Agreement attempted to revive the proposal for a referendum, but likewise has not met with had success. As of 2010, negotiations over the terms of any potential referendum have not resulted in any substantive action. At the heart of the dispute lies the question of who qualifies as a potential voter; the Polisario has insisted on only allowing those found on the 1974 Spanish Census lists (see below) to vote, while Morocco has insisted that the census was flawed by evasion and sought the inclusion of members of Sahrawi tribes which escape from Spanish invasion to the north of Morocco by the 19th century. Consequently, both sides blame each other for the stalling of the referendum, and little progress is likely to be made in the near future.

Referendum and Houston agreement

The cease fire ending hostilities was officially signed in 1991. Further attempts have since been made to resolve the conflict, but no lasting resolution has been achieved to date.

Cease fire

Peace process


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