36. Morocco/Western Sahara (1976-present)

Conflict Phase (February 27, 1976-September 6, 1991): The Provisional Sahrawi National Council of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saquia and Rio de Oro (Polisario Front) proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in the Western Sahara on February 27, 1976.  On March 5, 1976, the Polisario Front named an eight-member government headed by Mohamed Lamine Ahmed.  The Algerian government provided diplomatic assistance (diplomatic recognition) to the SADR on March 6, 1976.  The governments of Angola, Benin, Burundi, Guinea, Madagascar, Mozambique, Togo and Vietnam also provided diplomatic assistance (diplomatic recognition) to the SADR in 1976.  The governments of Algeria and Libya provided military assistance to the Polisario Front.  The governments of Morocco and Mauritania denounced the Polisario Front’s declaration of independence.  Moroccan and Mauritanian government officials signed the Rabat Agreement on April 14, 1976, which divided the former Spanish Sahara into a Moroccan sector and a Mauritanian sector.

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On May 11, 1976, Polisario Front rebels launched a military offensive against the towns of Laayoune (El Aaiún), Smara, Bou Craa, Bir Moghrein, and Chinguetti.  Polisario Front Secretary-General El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed (Sayed el‐Wali) was killed during a Polisario raid on Nouakchott, Mauritania on June 8-9, 1976.  Mahfoud Ali Beiba served as interim secretary-general of the Polisario Front from June 10 to August 30, 1976.  Mohammed Abdelazziz became the new secretary-general of the Polisario Front and President of the SADR on August 30, 1976.  On May 9, 1977, Polisario Front rebels Polisario Front rebels clashed with Mauritanian government troops near Quadane and Zouérat, Mauritania on August 18-20, 1977, resulting in the deaths of 18 Mauritanian soldiers and 30 rebels.  French government soldiers were deployed in Mauritania in November 1977.  French military aircraft and troops intervened in Operation Lamantine in support of the Mauritanian government beginning on December 2, 1977.  Some 100,000 Western Saharans fled as refugees to Algeria and Mauritania.  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) established a mission to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees in Algeria and Mauritania.  Polisario Front rebels attacked Mauritanian government troops on December 19, 1977, resulting in the deaths of 30 Mauritanian soldiers and 82 Polisario Front rebels.  On July 12, 1978, the Polisario Front announced a unilateral ceasefire in its military operations against Mauritania.  The heads-of-state of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) established a six-member conciliation commission (Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania) on December 1, 1978.  The OAU conciliation commission appealed for a ceasefire on December 5, 1978.  On January 4, 1979, Polisario Front rebels attacked the town of Assa in southern Morocco.  The Polisario Front attacked Moroccan government troops near Lemseid on January 16-17, 1979, resulting in the deaths of a reported 600 Moroccan soldiers.  Polisario Front rebels attacked Moroccan government troops in the town of Tan-Tan in southern Morocco on January 28, 1979, resulting in the reported deaths of 100 Moroccan soldiers.  Subsequently Moroccan government troops reportedly pursued and killed 200 rebels.  The OAU heads-of-state appealed for a ceasefire on July 20, 1979.  Representatives of the Mauritanian government and the Polisario Front signed a ceasefire agreement in Algiers, Algeria on August 5, 1979, which ended Mauritania’s claim to territory in Western Sahara.  Some 2,000 Mauritanian troops were killed during the conflict.  Moroccan government troops took control of the Mauritanian sector.  On August 24, 1979, Polisario Front rebels attacked Moroccan government troops in Lebuirat in southern Morocco, resulting in the deaths of some 200 to 600 Moroccan soldiers.  On August 27, 1979, Polisario Front rebels ambushed Moroccan government troops near the town of Sidi Amara, resulting in the deaths of several Moroccan soldiers.  Heads of state of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) expressed support for self-determination and independence for the Saharan people on September 8, 1979.  Polisario Front rebels launched a military offensive against Moroccan government troops in Smara on October 5-7, 1979, resulting in the deaths of 1,085 rebels and 121 Moroccan soldiers.  The Egyptian government provided military assistance to the Moroccan government beginning in November 1979.  Polisario Front rebels attacked a military base near Hagounia on January 2, 1980, resulting in the deaths of some 217 Moroccan soldiers.  The Cuban government provided diplomatic assistance (diplomatic recognition) to the SADR on January 21, 1980.  The Cuba government also provided military assistance, including military advisors, to the Polisario Front.  On January 24, 1980, the U.S. government announced that it would sell 24 helicopters, 20 F-5E fighters, and six reconnaissance planes worth $235 million to the Moroccan government.  Polisario Front rebels and Moroccan troops clashed near Akka on January 26, 1980, resulting in the deaths of some 100 rebels and nine government soldiers.  Polisario rebels and Moroccan troops clashed near the town of Bojador on February 13, 1980, resulting in the deaths of 209 rebels and nine Moroccan soldiers.  Moroccan troops launched a military offensive against Polisario rebels in the Ouarkziz area on May 6-9, 1980, resulting in the deaths of some 235 rebels and 26 Moroccan soldiers.  The OAU conciliation commission was dissolved on December 31, 1980.  OAU heads of state appealed for a ceasefire on June 28, 1981.  On the same day, the OAU heads of state established a seven-member implementation committee (Guinea, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Tanzania) to take “all necessary measures to guarantee the holding of a general and regular referendum on self-determination for the people of Western Sahara.”  Polisario Front rebels attacked a Moroccan military post in Guelta Zemmar on October 13, 1981, resulting in the deaths of some 200 government soldiers.  The government of Venezuela provided diplomatic assistance (diplomatic recognition) to the SADR on August 5, 1982.  Heads-of-state of the NAM appealed for negotiations between the Moroccan government and Polisario Front on March 12, 1983.  OAU heads-of-state appealed for negotiations between the government and Polisario Front on June 11, 1983.  The governments of Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and Sao Tome & Principe expressed support for Polisario Front on December 19, 1983.  The Mauritanian government provided diplomatic assistance (diplomatic recognition) to SADR on February 27, 1984.  President Hissen Habre of Chad expressed support for the Polisario Front on June 6, 1984.  The Libyan government ended its support of the Polisario Front in August 1984.  Zimbabwe provided diplomatic assistance (diplomatic recognition) to the SADR on September 27, 1984.  The United Nations (UN) and OAU established a joint-good offices commission on July 1, 1985.  The Moroccan government declared a unilateral ceasefire in October 1985.  The Indian government provided diplomatic assistance (diplomatic recognition) to the Polisario Front in October 1985.  On December 2, 1985, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for the Moroccan government to negotiate directly with the Polisario Front regarding the Western Sahara dispute.  Polisario Front rebels attacked Moroccan military bases in Tsibilirat on October 10, 1986, resulting in the deaths of 17 Moroccan soldiers.  The UN-OAU commission was disbanded on August 11, 1988.  On September 16, 1988, Polisario Front rebels attacked Moroccan government troops in the Oum Dreiga area, resulting in the deaths of some 200 Moroccan soldiers.  On September 20, 1988, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution authorizing the UN secretary-general to appoint a special representative to supervise the proposed peace process in Western Sahara.  UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar appointed Hector Gros Espiel of Uruguay as UN Special Representative for Western Sahara on October 19, 1988.  On November 22, 1988, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for direct negotiations between the Moroccan government and Polisario Front. On December 27, 1988, King Hassan II agreed to begin negotiations with the Polisario Front.  King Hassan II met with representatives of the Polisario Front for discussions in Marrakesh on January 4-5, 1989.  Polisario Front rebels commanded by Lahbib Ayub attacked Moroccan government troops in the Guelta Zemmour area on October 7, 1989, resulting in the deaths of at least 14 Moroccan soldiers and more than 50 rebels.  On October 11, 1989, Moroccan government troops clashes with Polisario Front rebels in the Hauza region, resulting in the deaths of some 190 Moroccan soldiers.  UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar appointed Johannes Manz of Switzerland as UN Special Representative for Western Sahara on January 19, 1990.  On June 18, 1990, UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar released a plan calling for a ceasefire, troop withdrawals, and the establishment of a UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara.  On April 29, 1991, the UN Security Council established the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to monitor the ceasefire agreement between the Moroccan government and Polisario and verify the reduction of Moroccan troops in Western Sahara.  Moroccan government troops launched a military offensive, known as Operation Rattle, against the Polisario Front-controlled towns of Tifariti, Mehaires, Mijek, Bir Lehlou, and Agwanit in Western Sahara between August 4 and August 29, 1991, resulting in the deaths of more than 25 civilians.  MINURSO, which consisted of a maximum of six civilian police officers and 237 military personnel (military observers and troops) commanded by Major General Armand Roy of Canada, was deployed in the Western Sahara beginning on September 1, 1991.  The ceasefire agreement between Morocco and the Polisario Front went into effect on September 6, 1991.  Some 14,000 individuals were killed, including 5,000 Moroccan soldiers, 2,000 Mauritanian soldiers, 4,000 Polisario rebels, and 3,000 civilians.  Some 200,000 individuals were displaced during the conflict.

Post-Conflict Phase (September 7, 1991-November 12, 2020):  UN Special Representative Johannes Manz resigned on January 1, 1992.  The Algerian government ended military assistance to the Polisario Front in February 1992. UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali appointed Sahabzada Yaqub-Khan of Pakistan as special representative for Western Sahara on March 25, 1992. The UN Security Council deployed the MINURSO-civilian police component consisting of 300 civilian police personnel from ten countries headed by Colonel Jurgen Friedrich Reimann of Germany between June 1993 and June 1996. The UN secretary-general appointed Erik Jensen of Malaysia as acting-special representative for Western Sahara in August 1995.  UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed James Baker of the U.S. as UN Personal Envoy (mediator) for Western Sahara on March 17, 1997.  Government security forces clashed with Sahrawi demonstrations in Laayoune (El Aaiún) on September 17-27, 1999.  The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) assisted with the repatriation of 186 Moroccan prisoners-of-war on February 26, 2000.  The Indian government withdrew diplomatic recognition of the Polisario Front on June 26, 2000.  The ICRC assisted with the repatriation of 201 Moroccan prisoners-of-war on December 14, 2000.  On June 20, 2001, On 20 June 2001, James Baker presented the Framework Agreement on the Status of Western Sahara (Baker Plan I), which was supported by the governments of France and the U.S.  The Polisario Front rejected the Baker Plan I, since it replaced the referendum with a vote on limited autonomy.  On May 23, 2003, James Baker proposed another plans (Baker Plan II), which provided for a referendum with within five years and included options for independence, autonomy, or integration with Morocco.  The Moroccan government rejected the Baker Plan II.  UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Alvaro de Soto of Peru as UN special representative to Western Sahara beginning on October 29, 2003.  James Baker resigned as UN Personal Envoy (mediator) on June 11, 2004.  Sahrawis demonstrated against the Moroccan government in El-Aaiún and other towns in Western Saharan beginning on May 21, 2005.  UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Peter van Walsum of the Netherlands as UN Personal Envoy (mediator) for Western Sahara on July 29, 2005.  UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Francesco Bastagli of Italy as UN Special Representative for Western Sahara on September 1, 2005.  One Sahrawi protester was killed by Moroccan police on October 30, 2005.  More than 100 Sahrawis were arrested by Moroccan police.  On December 14, 2005, fourteen Sahrawis were sentenced to prison terms by a Moroccan court in El-Aaiún.  UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Julian Harston of the United Kingdom as the UN Special Representative for Western Sahara on February 5, 2007.  On April 11, 2007, the Moroccan government submitted the Moroccan Initiative for Negotiating an Autonomy Statute for the Sahara Region to the UN secretary-general.  On April 30, 2007, the UN Security Council appealed to the parties to negotiate “in good faith and without preconditions.”  The first round of UN-mediated negotiations between representatives of the Moroccan government and Polisario Front took place in Manhasset, New York on June 18-19, 2007.  The second round of UN-mediated negotiations between representatives of the Moroccan government and Polisario Front took placed in Manhasset, New York on August 10-11, 2007.  The 12th General Popular Congress (GPC) of the Polisario Front was held in Tifariti on December 14-21, 2007.  The third round of UN-mediated negotiations between representatives of the Moroccan government and Polisario Front took place in Manhasset, New York on January 7-9, 2008.  Legislative elections were held on February 17-19, 2008, and the Polisario Front won 53 out of 53 seats in the Sahrawi National Council (SNC).  Mahfoud Ali Beiba was re-elected as Speaker of the SNC on February 27, 2008.  The fourth round of UN-mediated negotiations between representatives of the Moroccan government and Polisario Front took place in Manhasset, New York on March 17-18, 2008.  UN Personal Envoy Peter van Walsum resigned on August 21, 2008.  UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki-moon appointed Christopher Ross of the U.S. as UN Personal Envoy to Western Sahara on January 7, 2009.  Julian Harston, UN Special Representative to Western Sahara, ended his diplomatic efforts in Western Sahara on February 28, 2009.  Representatives of Morocco and the Polisario Front held UN-sponsored talks in Duernstein, Austria on August 10-11, 2009.  Moroccan government troops fired on a vehicle trying to enter the Gdaim Izik refugee camp on October 24, 2010, resulting in the death of one individual.  Representatives of Morocco and the Polisario Front held UN-mediated negotiations in Manhasset, New York on November 7-9, 2010.  Moroccan security personnel clashed with Western Saharan protesters at the Gdaim Izik refugee camp near Laayoune (El Aaiún) on November 8, 2010, resulting in the deaths of several civilians and ten Moroccan security personnel.  On November 15, 2010, the UN Security Council condemned the violence in Western Sahara.  On November 25, 2010, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the violence at the Gdaim Izik refugee camp and in El-Aaiún.  Representatives of Morocco and the Polisario Front held UN-mediated negotiated in Manhasset, New York on January 22-23, 2011.  Sahrawi protesters clashed with Moroccan police in Dakhla on February 26, 2011, resulting in injuries to at least 100 individuals.  On July 27, 2011, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Major General Abdul Hafiz of Bangladesh as the Force Commander of the MINURSO.  The 13th General Popular Congress (GPC) of the Polisario Front was held in Tifariti on December 15-22, 2011.  Legislative elections were held on February 19-21, 2012, and the Polisario Front won 53 out of 53 seats in the SNC.  Representatives of Morocco and the Polisario Front held UN-mediated negotiations in Greentree, Long Island, New York on March 11-13, 2012.   On June 15, 2012, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Wolfgang Weisbrod-Weber of Germany as UN Special Representative and Head of MINURSO.  On August 27, 2013, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Major General Imam Edy Mulyono of Indonesia as Force Commander of the MINURSO.  On May 14, 2014, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Kim Bolduc of Canada as UN Special Representative and Head of MINURSO.  After UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon referred to Morocco’s “occupation” of Western Sahara, the Moroccan government demanded the departure of 84 civilian staff members of MINURSO from Western Sahara on March 17, 2016.  On March 21, 2016, the Moroccan government asked the UN to close its military liaison office in Dakhla.  Mohamed Abdelaziz, secretary-general of the Polisario Front and president of the SADR, died of an illness at a hospital in Algeria on May 31, 2016.  On July 9, 2016, Brahim Ghali was elected as secretary-general of the Polisario Front and president of the SADR.  The UN peacekeeping mission MINURSO consisted of 23 troops, 193 military observers, and 85 civilian staff personnel as of December 31, 2016.  On February 25, 2017, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on the Moroccan government and Polisario Front to “exercise maximum restraint and take all necessary steps to avoid escalating tensions.”  On April 11, 2017, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a resumption of negotiations between representatives of the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front.  On July 19, 2017, the Moroccan Court of Appeals sentenced 23 Sahrawis to prison terms for their involvement in the killing of 11 Moroccan security personnel in November 2010. On August 18, 2017, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed Horst Köhler of Germany as his Personal Envoy for Western Sahara.  On December 1, 2017, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed Colin Stewart of Canada as UN Special Representative and Head of MINURSO.  Christopher Ross submitted his resignations as the UN secretary-general’s personal envoy for Western Sahara on March 6, 2017.  On April 2, 2018, the Moroccan government complained the UN Security Council about the deployment of Polisario Front rebels in the Western Sahara’s Al Mahbes area.  On May 1, 2018, the Moroccan government severed diplomatic relations with Iran after accusing Iran of providing military assistance (weapons and training) and economic assistance to the Polisario Front through the Lebanese group, Hezbollah.  On May 2, 2018, the Iranian government denied Morocco’s allegations.  Horst Köhler, the UN secretary-general’s personal envoy for Western Sahara, mediated negotiations between representatives of the Polisario Front, Algeria, Mauritania, and Morocco in Geneva, Switzerland on December 5-6, 2018.  The UN peacekeeping mission MINURSO consisted of 198 military observers, 26 troops, one civilian police officer, and 17 civilian staff personnel as of December 31, 2018.  There had been 16 fatalities among MINURSO personnel as of December 31, 2018.  Horst Köhler, the UN secretary-general’s personal envoy for Western Sahara, mediated negotiations between representatives of the Polisario Front, Algeria, Mauritania, and Morocco in Geneva, Switzerland on March 21-22, 2019.  Horst Köhler resigned as the UN secretary-general’s personal envoy for Western Sahara on May 22, 2019.  On October 21, 2020, supporters of Polisario Front, along with some Polisario Front soldiers, began a blockade of traffic on a road near the town of Guerguerat in the UN buffer zone.  The Moroccan government complained to the UN secretary-general about the blockade.  On November 4, 2020, the United Arab Emirates opened a consulate in Western Sahara.

Conflict Phase (November 13, 2020-present):  On November 13, 2020, the Moroccan government launched a military operation near Guerguerat in southern Western Sahara to end “provocations” by the Polisario Front.  The Algerian government condemned the Moroccan government for violations of the ceasefire agreement in Western Sahara and called for the immediate cessation of military operations.  On November 14, 2020, Polisario withdrew from the ceasefire and resumed military hostilities against Moroccan military forces in the Western Sahara.  On December 10, 2020, the U.S. government recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.  On January 24, 2021, the Polisario Front launched rockets toward Guerguerat in southern Western Sahara.  On February 8, 2021, Polisario Front troops attacked and killed three Moroccan government soldiers in the Ouarkziz region in southern Morocco.  On April 8, 2021, the Polisario Front announced that its police chief, Addah al-Bendir, had been killed in a Moroccan drone attack in the Tifariti region of Western Sahara.  On October 2, 2021, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed to the parties to the Western Sahara dispute to “de-escalate the situation” and agree to the appointment of a UN envoy.  On October 6, 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Staffan de Mistura of Italy as the UN Personal Envoy for Western Sahara.

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Selected Bibliography

Besenyő, János. 2017. “Guerrilla Operations in Western Sahara: The Polisario versus Morocco and Mauritania,” Connections: The Quarterly Journal, vol. 16 (3), pp. 23-45.

Bhatia, Michael. 2001. “The Western Sahara under Polisario Control,” Review of African Political Economy, vol. 28 (88), pp. 291-298.

Damis, John. 1983. “The Western Sahara Conflict: Myths and Realities,” Middle East Journal, vol. 37 (2), pp. 169-179.

Damis, John. 2001. “Sahrawi Demonstrations,” Middle East Report, vol. 31 (1), pp. 38-41.

Dunbar, Charles. 2000. “Saharan Stasis: Status and Future Prospects of the Western Sahara Conflict,” Middle East Journal, vol. 54 (4), pp. 522-545.

Fernández-Molina, Irene. 2015. “Protests under Occupation: The Spring inside Western Sahara,” Mediterranean Politics, vol. 20 (2), pp. 235-254.

Hermida, Alfred. 1993. “The Forgotten Front,” Africa Report, vol. 38 (3), pp. 40-43.

Howe, John. 1978. “Western Sahara: A War Zone,” Review of African Political Economy, no. 11, pp. 84-92.

Maddy-Weitzman, Bruce. 1991. “Conflict and Conflict Management in the Western Sahara: Is the Endgame Near?,” Middle East Journal, vol. 45 (4), pp. 594-607.

Mohsen-Finan, Khadija. 2002. “The Western Sahara Dispute Under UN Pressure,” Mediterranean Politics, vol. 7 (2), pp. 1-12.

Seddon, David. 1989. “Polisario and the Struggle for the Western Sahara: Recent Developments, 1987-1989,” Review of African Political Economy, no. 45/46, pp. 132-142.

Solà-Martín, Andreu. 2007. “The Western Sahara Cul-de-Sac,” Mediterranean Politics, vol. 12 (3), pp. 399-405.

Zoubir, Yahia H. 1990. “The Western Sahara Conflict: Regional and International Dimensions,” The Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 28 (2), pp. 225-243.

Zoubir, Yahia H. 1995. “Protracted Conflict and Failure to Achieve Pre-Negotiation in the Western Sahara Conflict,” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, vol. 20 (2), pp. 1-44.

Zoubir, Yahia H. and Anthony G. Pazzanita. 1995. “The United Nations’ Failure in Resolving the Western Sahara Conflict,” Middle East Journal, vol. 49 (4), pp. 614-628.

Zoubir, Yahia H. and Karima Benabdallah-Gambier. 2005. “The United States and the North African Imbroglio: Balancing Interests in Algeria, Morocco, and the Western Sahara,” Mediterranean Politics, vol. 10 (2), pp. 181-202.

Zunes, Stephen. 1995. “Algeria, the Maghreb Union, and the Western Sahara Stalemate,”Arab Studies Quarterly, vol. 17 (3), pp. 23-36.