Western Sahara independence movement leader Abdelaziz dies

Western Sahara independence movement leader Abdelaziz dies
The head of the Polisario Front, Mohamed Abdelaziz, has died after a long illness, the independence movement said in a statement.
2 min read
Abdelaziz (C) had been Polisario leader since 1976 [Getty]

The Polisario Front, which demands the Western Sahara's independence from Morocco, has said that Secretary General Mohamed Abdelaziz had died "after a long illness".

Abdelaziz had been Polisario leader since 1976, after the group was founded three years previously to struggle for independence for the former Spanish colony.

The movement ordered a 40-day mourning period, after which a new secretary-general will be chosen, a statement said.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika also decreed eight days' national mourning, state television reported.

It added that the president had opened a meeting of the cabinet by observing a minute's silence in tribute to the independence leader. Algeria has long supported the Polisario Front's campaign against Morocco.

"This is a great loss for the Sahrawi people," Polisario official Mohammed Keddad told AFP.

"He sacrificed his life for the liberation of Western Sahara. He embodied the wisdom and a sincere and firm commitment to its liberation," he added.

The United Nations has been trying to broker a Western Sahara settlement since 1991 after a ceasefire was reached to end a war that broke out when Morocco deployed its military in the territory in 1975.

Local Sahrawi people are campaigning for the right to self-determination while the armed Polisario Front calls for full independence, but Morocco considers the territory as part of its kingdom and insists its sovereignty cannot be challenged.

In March this year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met Abdelaziz and also said he would spare no effort in trying to find a political solution in the Western Sahara, controversially referring to Morocco's presence there as an "occupation".

When he met Ban at a refugee camp in Tindouf in Algeria, Abdelaziz appeared to be in poor health.

Repeated bids by UN mediators to hold a referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawis in the vast territory have failed.

Since 2007, Morocco has proposed a plan for limited autonomy under its sovereignty, but this has been rejected by the Polisario Front, which demands a referendum on self-determination.