The Sahara War 1975-1991

[ 1975 - 1991 ]

Polisario...  abbreviation OF POPULAR FRONT FOR THE LIBERATION OF SAGUIA EL HAMRA AND RÍO DE ORO, Spanish FRENTE POPULAR PARA LA LIBERACIÓN DE SAGUIA EL HAMRA Y RÍO DE ORO, politico-military organization striving to end Moroccan control of the former Spanish territory of Western Sahara, in northwestern Africa, and win independence for that region. Polisario is composed largely of the indigenous nomadic inhabitants of the Western Sahara region, the Saharawis. Polisario began as an insurgency (based in neighbouring Mauritania) against Spanish control of the Western Sahara. After Spain withdrew and Morocco and Mauritania partitioned Western Sahara between them in 1976, Polisario relocated to Algeria, which henceforth provided the organization with bases and military aid. Mauritania made peace with Polisario in 1979, but Morocco then unilaterally annexed Mauritania's portion of the Western Sahara. During the 1980s the Polisario guerrillas, numbering some 15,000 motorized and well-armed troops, harassed and raided Moroccan outposts and defenses in the Western Sahara. The Polisario declined from the late 1980s, however, as its two main backers, Algeria and Libya, reduced their support in order to concentrate on their internal problems.

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From November 1975 the area was administered jointly by Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania; and, when in February 1976 the Spanish departed, Morocco and Mauritania divided the area between themselves, Morocco gaining the northern two-thirds of the area and, consequently, the phosphates. Sporadic fighting developed between Moroccan forces and guerrillas of the Saharawi insurgency, the Polisario Front (from Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Río de Oro), which was supported by and based in Algeria. The Polisario in 1976 declared a government-in-exile of what it called the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (a government recognized by some 70 nations), and it continued to raid the Mauritanian and Moroccan outposts in the Western Sahara.

Mauritania bowed out of the fighting and reached a peace agreement with the Polisario Front in 1979, but in response Morocco promptly annexed Mauritania's portion of Western Sahara. Morocco fortified the vital triangle formed by the Bu Craa mines, the old colonial capital of El Aaiún, and the city of Smara, while the Polisario guerrillas continued their raids. A United Nations peace proposal in 1988 specified a referendum for the indigenous Saharawis to decide whether they wanted an independent Western Sahara under the Polisario Front's leadership or whether the region would officially become part of Morocco. This peace proposal was accepted by both Morocco and the Polisario Front, and the two sides agreed to a cease-fire in 1991. Preparations to hold the referendum subsequently stalled, however, and the Polisario Front's position grew weaker as Algeria cut back its military and financial support and Morocco moved tens of thousands of settlers into the Western Sahara.

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By the mid-1970s, the government of Spain appeared willing to relinquish the territory, which was becoming more costly to administer. In addition, the sudden collapse of Portugal's empire in Africa and the ensuing liberation of Mozambique and Angola had strengthened the determination of the Polisario to shake off Spanish colonial rule, and attacks on Spanish settlements and forts had become more intense. Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria also orchestrated international opposition in the United Nations to continued Spanish occupation. The Spanish government finally terminated its claim to the Spanish Sahara in February 1976 and bequeathed the territory--renamed the Western Sahara--jointly to Morocco and Mauritania, both of which consented to allow Spain to exploit the Bu Craa phosphates. Spain excluded Algeria from the withdrawal agreement, largely because Algeria intended to prevent Spain from exploiting the Bu Craa deposits, a decision which contributed considerably to the growing discord in an already troubled area....

In early 1975, both Morocco and Mauritania agreed to abide by the decision of the International Court of Justice on the status of the Spanish Sahara, but when the court ruled in October 1975 that neither country was entitled to claim sovereignty over the territory, both governments chose to ignore the decision. In November 1975, they concluded the Madrid Agreements with Spain under which Morocco acquired the northern two-thirds of the territory, while Mauritania acquired the southern third. The agreement also included the proviso that Spain would retain shares in the Bu Craa mining enterprise. Mauritania acquiesced to the agreements under the assumption, probably correct, that Morocco, with its superior military power, would otherwise have absorbed the entire territory...

Economic hardship also weighed heavily on the Daddah regime. During 1977, defense expenditures increased as international demand for iron ore (Mauritania's major source of foreign exchange) fell. Drought conditions that devastated crops and herds further strained the economy. Mauritania survived only with the help of grants and loans from Saudi Arabia, France, Morocco, and Libya.

In January 1978, during a special congress of the PPM, Daddah unsuccessfully tried to seek a path out of the Western Sahara war; however, the increasingly isolated leader proved unable to undertake any diplomatic or political initiatives. In addition, relations between Daddah and senior army officers were strained because the president constantly shifted senior officers from posting to posting to guard against a possible coup.

In February 1978, in a desperate move, Daddah appointed Colonel Mustapha Ould Salek to be army commander. In the late 1960s, Daddah had relegated Salek, who was suspected of proFrench leanings, to the reserve corps. (Salek had reentered active duty only in 1977, when he was made commander of the Third Military Region, at Atar, and relations between Daddah and Salek were still strained.) On July 10, 1978, the newly appointed army commander led a group of junior officers in the bloodless overthrow of the eighteen-year-old Daddah government.

Under Salek, a twenty-man junta calling itself the Military Committee for National Recovery (Comité Militaire de Redressement National--CMRN) assumed power. The CMRN was a centrist, moderate, pro-French and pro-Moroccan regime, whose first mandate was to bring peace to Mauritania. The Polisario, which believed Mauritania would withdrew from the war if given the opportunity, declared a unilateral cease-fire, which the CMRN accepted at once.

Salek and the CMRN then directed its collective diplomatic attention to Morocco, whose troops were still thought necessary to protect SNIM operations and thus enable the Mauritanian economy to recover. Following Morocco's lead, the CMRN opposed the creation of a new, independent state in the Western Sahara, although Salek did not rule out the possibility of a federated state with limited autonomy. In the meantime, while Polisario guerrillas and Moroccan troops continued to fight, the Mauritanian Army withdrew from active participation in the war, although the CMRN was constrained from signing a peace treaty in order to placate Morocco. Within a short time, however, Polisario leaders had become increasingly impatient with Mauritania's inability to make a conclusive commitment to peace, and in April 1979 they demanded the evacuation of Mauritanian troops from Tiris al Gharbiyya as a precondition for further talks...

The difficulties facing the Salek government multiplied and soon proved to be insurmountable. His regime failed to overcome Morocco's resistance to any settlement of the Western Sahara conflict. The death of Algerian president Houari Boumediene in December 1978 further heightened tensions. Also, Senegalese president Leopold Senghor, who was displeased with Salek's ties with Morocco, instigated a press campaign that highlighted racial problems in Mauritania. Salek did little to ease the racial problem when, in March 1979, he named eighty-one Maures and only seventeen blacks to his new national advisory committee. Finally, the French government lost confidence in Salek's ability to extricate Mauritania from both the Western Sahara war and Moroccan influence. Isolated and weak, Salek's government was overthrown on April 6, 1979, by Colonel Ahmed Ould Bouceif and Colonel Mohamed Khouna Haidalla, who formed the Military Committee for National Salvation (Comité Militaire de Salut National--CMSN). Salek, however, was permitted to remain in the government as a figurehead president. In late May, Bouceif was killed in an airplane crash; Haidalla was designated prime minister, and Colonel Mohamed Louly was named president...

Like its predecessor, the CMSN sought first to negotiate peace with the Polisario without sacrificing its friendly ties with Morocco and France. In its domestic policies, the Mauredominated CMSN embittered both black and Maure civilians because it refused to share power with either group. In addition, the government insisted on using Arabic exclusively in the secondary schools, provoking a wave of student protests in April 1979.

In July 1979, its patience exhausted, the Polisario ended its cease-fire. Confronted with endless warfare and total economic collapse, the CMSN on August 5 signed a peace treaty in Algeria with the Polisario, according to which Mauritania renounced all territorial and other claims over the Western Sahara. The Polisario, in return, renounced all claims regarding Mauritania. Most significant, Mauritania recognized the Polisario as the sole legitimate representative of the people of the Western Sahara, although in an effort to convince Morocco of its neutrality in the conflict, it did not recognize the Polisario's governing arm, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). The CMSN government also agreed to withdraw from Tiris al Gharbiyya. However, just a few days after the signing of the peace treaty, Morocco occupied Tiris al Gharbiyya, rendering the issue moot and threatening the peace.

<table class='table table-bordered col-lg-12 col-md-12 col-sm-12 col-xs-12 margin20 row-30' border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="100%" style="font-family: 'Times New Roman'; background-color: rgb(255, 255, 255);"><tbody><tr><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">State</font></td><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Entry</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Exit</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Combat Forces</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Population</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Losses</font></td></tr><tr><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Morocco</font></td><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1975</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1987</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">149000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">22000000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">7000</font></td></tr><tr><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Rebels</font></td><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1975</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1987</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">15000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1000000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">4000</font></td></tr></tbody></table>

Total Casualties 11000 Killed and Wounded
Casualties Killed / Wounded
Military Casualties Killed 11000 /Wounded
Civilian Casualties Killed / Wounded
Note
Belligerents Initiation Date Termination Date
Morocco and Polisario Front 1975 / 10 / 30 1992 / 9 / 6 View
Mauritania and Algeria 1975 / 10 / 30 1979 View
France and Algeria 1977 1978 View
Weapon Name Weapon Class Weapon Class Type
BTR-60 Vehicle Armoured Fighting Vehicle
Eland Mk7 Vehicle Armoured Fighting Vehicle
M60 Patton Vehicle Self-Propelled artillery
M163 VADS Vehicle Self-Propelled artillery
ZSU-23-4 Vehicle Self-Propelled artillery
L118 light gun Vehicle Towed Artillery
9M14 Malyutka Missile Air to Surface

Related Conflicts

No Releted Conflicts