Western Sahara

Western Sahara

Map of Western Sahara

A mainly desert territory in north-west Africa, Western Sahara is the subject of a decades-long dispute between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front.

The territory is phosphate-rich and believed to have offshore oil deposits. Most of it has been under Moroccan control since 1976.

Western Sahara fell under Spanish rule in 1884, becoming a Spanish province in 1934. Nationalism emerged in the 1960s, as nomadic Saharans, or Saharawis, settled in the region.

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At a glance

Seized by Morocco after Spain and Mauritania withdrew

Polisario Front seeks independence

Morocco only prepared to grant autonomy

Territory rich in phosphates, fisheries and possibly offshore oil

Cease-fire in place since 1991

Polisario was set up on 10 May 1973 and established itself as the sole representative of the Saharan people. Some 100,000 refugees still live in Polisario's camps in Algeria.

Madrid Agreement

In October 1975 the International Court of Justice rejected territorial claims by Morocco and Mauritania. The court recognised the Saharawis' right to self-determination and Spain agreed to organise a referendum.

But in November 1975, Moroccan King Hassan II ordered a “Green March” of over 300,000 Moroccans into the territory. Spain backed down and negotiated a settlement with Morocco and Mauritania, known as the Madrid Agreement.

Signed on 14 November 1975, the deal partitioned the region. Morocco acquired two-thirds in the north and Mauritania the remaining third. Spain agreed to end colonial rule.

Polisario declared the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) on 27 February 1976 and announced its first government on 4 March.

The current SADR president, Mohamed Abdelaziz, was elected Polisario secretary-general in August 1976.

In August 1978, one month after a coup, a new Mauritanian government signed a peace deal with Polisario and renounced all territorial claims.

Morocco moved to occupy areas allocated to Mauritania. Algeria in turn allowed refugees to settle in its southern town of Tindouf, where Polisario still has its main base.

Polisario led a guerrilla war against Moroccan forces until 1991.


In April 1991 the UN established Minurso, the United Nations Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara. Its brief was to implement a peace plan outlined in a 1990 Security Council resolution. In September 1991 a UN-brokered ceasefire was declared.

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Key dates

1884: Spain colonises Western Sahara

1973: Polisario set up

1975: World Court rules people should decide on sovereignty

1975: “Green March”, Spain agrees to hand over to Morocco, Mauritania

1976: Spain withdraws, SADR declared

1979: Morocco annexes Mauritania's share

1976-1991: Guerrilla warfare

1991: Minurso established

1991: Ceasefire declared

1996: UN suspends referendum moves

2001: Baker plan

2007-8: Talks fail to reach resolution

The peace plan provided for a transition period, leading to a referendum in January 1992. Western Saharans would choose between independence and integration with Morocco.

Minurso was to total 1,000 civilian and 1,700 military personnel. Its brief was to monitor the ceasefire, the confinement of warring parties to designated areas and the exchange of prisoners.

While the ceasefire held, the mission was never fully deployed. Nor was the transition period ever completed. A key sticking point was an “identification process”, to decide who was eligible to vote.

Identification was to be based on a census carried out by Spain in 1973. Polisario wanted to rule out Moroccans who settled in Western Sahara after the Green March.

In May 1996 the UN suspended the identification process and recalled most Minurso civilian staff. Military personnel stayed to oversee the truce.

Initial attempts to revive the process foundered over Morocco's worries that a referendum would not serve its interests.

Baker plan

Peace returned to the drawing board when UN special envoy James Baker mediated in talks between Polisario and Morocco in London, Lisbon and Houston in 1997, then in London again in 2000.

Agreements were reached on the release of POWs, a code of conduct for a referendum campaign, UN authority during a transition period – but not on voter eligibility. Further talks were held in Berlin and Geneva in 2000, but again ran into trouble.

In a new bid to break the deadlock, James Baker submitted a “Framework Agreement”, known as the Third Way, in June 2001.

It provided for autonomy for Saharawis under Moroccan sovereignty, a referendum after a four-year transition period, and voting rights for Moroccan settlers resident in Western Sahara for over a year.

This formula was rejected by Polisario and Algeria. Then in July 2003, the UN adopted a compromise resolution proposing that Western Sahara become a semi-autonomous region of Morocco for a transition period of up to five years.

A referendum would then take place on independence, semi-autonomy or integration with Morocco.

This compromise was seen as addressing Moroccan concerns, in a bid to entice it to agree to a referendum.


Polisario signalled its readiness to accept, but Morocco rejected the plan, citing security concerns. Envoy James Baker resigned in June 2004 and the UN process remains deadlocked.

Talks resumed between Morocco and the Polisario Front in March 2008 in New York, with Mauritania and Algeria also attending. They made no progress.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought to break the impasse during a visit to North Africa in September, but the pursuit of al-Qaeda networks in Morocco and Algeria took precedence.

In January 2009 UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed US diplomat Christopher Ross as his new special envoy to deal with Western Sahara. Mr Ross was once US ambassador to Algeria.

In November 2010, several people were killed in violent clashes between Moroccan security forces and protesters near the capital Laayoune, shortly before UN-mediated talks on the future of the territory were due to open in New York.


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