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Western Sahara War
Part of The Polisario Front dispute for independence
Map of the Western Sahara, the red line is the berm built by Morocco
Date 1973–1991
Location Western Sahara, Morocco, Mauritania, Spanish State
Result Spanish retreat (1976), Mauritanian retreat (1979) & Polisario Front - Morocco ceasefire (1991)
Spain Spain (1973–1975)
 Mauritania (1975–1979)
 Morocco (1975–1991)
 France (Air forces support to Mauritania in 1977-78, Operation Lamantin)
Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic Polisario Front
 Algeria (Army forces support to Polisario Front in 1976, Battle of Amgala)
Spain Francisco Franco
Spain Federico Gómez de Salazar
Spain Fernando de Santiago y Díaz de Mendivil
Mauritania Mokhtar Ould Daddah
MauritaniaMohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah
Morocco Hassan II
Morocco Ahmed Dlimi
Morocco Abdelaziz Bennani
Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic Mohamed Abdelaziz
Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed 
Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic Lahbib Ayoub
Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic Brahim Ghali
Morocco: 40,000-65,000 (1976) - 100,000 (1988) - 120,000 (1991)

Spain: 20,000 (1975)

Mauritania: 5,000 (1976) - 12,000 (1977) - 15,000 (1978)

5,000 (1976) - 15,000 (1979) - 8,000 (1988)
Casualties and losses
Morocco: 5,000 - 7,000 soldiers killed

2,000 captured

Mauritania: 2,000 soldiers killed

1,000 - 3,000 combatants killed

200 captured

500 civilians missing

The Western Sahara War was the armed conflict which saw the Sahrawi rebel national liberation movement Polisario Front battling Spain, Morocco and Mauritania for the decolonization & independence of the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara from 1973 to 1991. The war resulted in the Spanish retreat in 1976, the Mauritanian retreat in 1979 and a cease fire agreement with Morocco. The bigger part of the territory remained under Moroccan occupation.




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 joined 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 indigenous Sahrawi population kept the Spanish forces out of much of the territory for a long time. Ma al-Aynayn started an uprising against the French in the 1910s, at a time when France had expanded its influence and control in North-West Africa. French forces finally beat him when he tried to conquer Marrakesh, and in retaliation destroy the holy city of Smara in 1913, but his sons and followers figured prominently in several rebellions which followed. Not until the second destruction of Smara in 1934, by joint Spanish and French forces, did the territory finally become subdued. Another uprising in 1956 - 1958, initiated by the Moroccan-backed & controlled Army of Liberation, led to heavy fighting, but eventually the Spanish forces regained control - again with French aid -. However, unrest simmered, and in 1967 the Harakat Tahrir arose to challenge Spanish rule peacefully. After the events of the Zemla Intifada in 1970, when Spanish police destroyed the organization and "disappeared" its founder, Muhammad Bassiri, Sahrawi nationalism again took a militant turn.

Creation of the 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, but only drawing faint notices of support from Libya and Mauritania, the movement eventually relocated to Spanish-controlled Western Sahara to start an armed rebellion.


This article is part of the series:
History of Western Sahara
Western Sahara

Historical background

Western Sahara War · History of Morocco · Spanish Sahara · Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic · Spanish Morocco · Colonial wars in Morocco · Moroccan Army of Liberation · Ifni War · ICJ Advisory Opinion · UN in Spanish Sahara · Madrid Accords · Green March · Berm (Western Sahara) · Human rights in Western Sahara

Disputed regions

Saguia el-Hamra · Río de Oro · Southern Provinces · Free Zone


Legal status of Western Sahara · Politics of Morocco · Politics of the SADR · Polisario Front · Former members of the Polisario Front · CORCAS · Moroccan Initiative for Western Sahara


Moroccan Army of Liberation · Harakat Tahrir · Polisario Front · Zemla Intifada · Independence Intifada

UN involvement

Resolution 1495 · Resolution 1754 · UN visiting mission · MINURSO · Settlement Plan · Houston Agreement · Baker Plan · Manhasset negotiations


The beginnings

The Polisario Front was formally constituted on May 10, 1973 with the express intention of militarily forcing an end to Spanish colonization. Its first Secretary General was El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed. On May 20 he led the Khanga raid, Polisario's first armed action,[1] in which a Spanish post manned by a team of Tropas Nomadas (Sahrawi-staffed auxiliary forces) was overrun and rifles seized. Polisario then gradually gained control over large swaths of desert countryside, and its power grew from early 1975 when the Tropas Nomadas began deserting to the Polisario, bringing weapons and training with them. At this point, Polisario's manpower included perhaps 800 men and women, but they were backed by a vastly larger network of supporters. A UN visiting mission headed by Simeon Aké that was conducted in June 1975 concluded that Sahrawi support for independence (as opposed to Spanish rule or integration with a neighbouring country) amounted to an "overwhelming consensus" and that the Polisario Front was by far the most powerful political force in the country.

Withdrawal of Spain

While Spain started negotiating a handover of power in the summer of 1975, in the end the Franco regime decided to throw in its lot with Western Sahara's neighbours instead[citation needed]. After Moroccan pressures through the Green March of November 6, Spain entered negotiations that led to the signing of the Madrid Accords between Spain, Morocco and Mauritania. Upon Spain's withdrawal, and in application of the Madrid Accords in 1976, Morocco took over the Saguia El Hamra & the northern half of Rio de Oro, while Mauritania took control of the southern half of Rio De Oro. The Polisario Front proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic on 27, February 1976, and waged a guerrilla war against both Morocco and Mauritania. The World Court at The Hague had issued its verdict on the former Spanish colony just weeks before, which each party interpreted as confirming its rights on the disputed territory.

Meanwhile, in the fall of 1975, tens of thousands of sahrawis have been running out from the Morocco-controlled cities into the desert, building up improvisated refugee camps in Amgala, Tifariti, Umm Dreiga... In January 1976, the Royal Moroccan Air Force started bombing the camps on the north part of the territory. In February 1976, Morocco attacks Umm Dreiga refugee camps with Napalm & White phosphorus causing hundreds of deaths.[2][3][4][5]

The Polisario kept up the guerrilla war and rebased in Tindouf in the western regions of Algeria. For the next two years the movement grew tremendously as Sahrawi refugees flocked to the camps and Algeria & Libya supplied arms and funding. Within months, its army had expanded to several thousand armed fighters, camels were replaced by modern jeeps, and 19th century muskets were replaced by assault rifles. The reorganized army was able to inflict severe damage through guerrilla-style hit-and-run attacks against enemy forces in Western Sahara and in Morocco and Mauritania proper.

Mauritania pulls out

The weak Mauritanian regime of Ould Daddah, whose army numbered under 3,000 men,[6] proved unable to fend off the guerrilla incursions. After repeated strikes at the country's principal source of income, the iron mines of Zouerate, the government was nearly incapacitated by the lack of funds and the ensuing internal disorder. [4] Ethnic unrest in the Mauritanian armed forces also strongly contributed to the ineffectiveness of the army: forcibly conscripted black Africans from the south of the country resisted getting involved in what they viewed as a northern intra-Arab dispute, and the tribes of northern Mauritania often sympathized with Polisario, fearing possible Moroccan regional ambitions and resenting perceived increasing dependence of the Daddah regime on Moroccan military support.

Not even overt French Air Force backing in 1978, when SEPECAT Jaguar fighters strafed and bombed Polisario guerrilla columns en route to Mauritania, proved enough to save the regime, and the death of Polisario leader El Ouali in a raid on Nouakchott did not as anticipated result in the collapse of Polisario morale. Instead, he was replaced by Mohamed Abdelaziz, with no letup in the pace of attacks. The Daddah regime finally fell in 1978 to a coup d'état led by war-weary military officers, [5] who immediately agreed to a cease fire with the Polisario. A comprehensive peace treaty was signed on August 5, 1979, in which the new government recognized Sahrawi rights to Western Sahara and relinquished its own claims. Mauritania withdrew all its forces and would later proceed to formally recognize the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, causing a massive rupture in relations with Morocco. King Hassan II of Morocco immediately claimed the area of Western Sahara evacuated by Mauritania (Tiris al-Gharbiya, roughly corresponding to the southern half of Río de Oro), which was unilaterally annexed by Morocco in August 1979. [6]

The Moroccan wall stalemates the war

From the mid-1980s Morocco largely managed to keep Polisario troops off by building a huge berm or sand wall (the Moroccan Wall), staffed by an army roughly the same size as the entire Sahrawi population, enclosing within it the economically useful parts of Western Sahara (Bou Craa, El-Aaiun, Smara etc). This stalemated the war, with no side able to achieve decisive gains, but artillery strikes and sniping attacks by the guerrillas continued, and Morocco was economically and politically strained by the war. Morocco faced heavy burdens due to the economic costs of its massive troop deployments along the Wall. To some both economical & military extent aid sent by Saudi Arabia, France and by the U.S.A.[7] relieved the situation in Morocco, but matters gradually became unsustainable for all parties involved.

Cease-fire and aftermath

A cease-fire between the Polisario and Morocco, monitored by MINURSO (UN) has been in effect since September 6, 1991, on the promise of a referendum on independence the following year. The referendum, however, stalled over disagreements on voter rights, and numerous attempts at restarting the process (most significantly the launching of the 2003 Baker plan) seem to have failed. The prolonged cease-fire has held without major disturbances, but Polisario has repeatedly threatened to resume fighting if no break-through occurs. Morocco's withdrawal from both the terms of the original Settlement Plan and the Baker Plan negotiations in 2003 left the peace-keeping mission without a political agenda: this further increased the risks of renewed war.

International incidents

On June 25, 1975, two reconnaissance planes from the Spanish Air Force were strafed by Moroccan forces near the border. The day before, a Land Rover of the Spanish Army bursted when was patrolling the Spanish Sahara - Morocco border. The five passengers of the jeep died. Spanish government protested energically to Moroccan authorities about this incidents.

On February 24, 1985, the Polar 3, a research airplane of the Alfred Wegener Institute of the type Dornier 228, was shot down by guerrillas of the Polisario Front over Western Sahara. All three crew members died. Polar 3, together with unharmed Polar 2, was on its way back from Antarctica and had taken off in Dakar, Senegal, to reach Arrecife, Canary Islands.[8] The German government, which did not recognize Morocco's claim to Western Sahara at the time and remained neutral in the conflict, heavily criticized the incident.[9]

In 1984, Polisario had shot down two Moroccan and a Belgian airplane as well.[9]


  1. ^ WSO| El-Khanga raid
  2. ^ [1] Nationalism, Identity and Citizenship in Western Sahara 17/08/2007- THE JOURNAL OF NORTH AFRICAN STUDIES PABLO SAN MARTIN
  3. ^ Surendra Bhutani, Conflict on Western Sahara, Strategic Analysis, 1754-0054, Volume 2, Issue 7, 1978, Pages 251 – 256.
  4. ^ [2] A brief history of the Western Saharan people's struggle for freedom
  5. ^ Tomás Bárbulo, La historia prohibida del Sáhara Español, Destino, Imago mundi, Volume 21, 2002, Pages 284-285
  6. ^
  7. ^ [3] Washington defines to king Hassan II the range of their militar aid (Spanish), published: October 10, 1979, accesed: December 27, 2009.
  8. ^ Aviation safety network - Report on Polar 3 accessed: April 18, 2009
  9. ^ a b Rakete traf die Polar 3 (German) Hamburger Abendblatt, published: February 28, 1985, accessed: April 18, 2009

See also

External links


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