May 31, 2016

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — The head of the independence movement in the Western Sahara, Mohamed Abdelaziz, died on Tuesday after a long illness, the Polisario Front said in a statement. He was in his late 60s.

The movement ordered a 40-day mourning period, after which a new secretary-general will be chosen, the statement said. The death of Abdelaziz, leader of the Polisario Front for four decades, comes at a time of growing tension over the fate of the Western Sahara. The Polisario Front has fought for four decades for independence for the vast, mineral-rich disputed territory, which was annexed by Morocco after Spain withdrew in 1975.

Morocco now considers the territory its “southern provinces” and has pumped funds into the area’s development over the years. Abdelaziz was born in 1948 in Smara, in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, and led the Polisario Front, which he helped found, since 1976, according to Algeria’s state-run APS news agency.

The status of the Western Sahara has recently spread new friction between two North African neighbors, Morocco and Algeria, which supports the Polisario Front, and like numerous other African countries recognizes the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic it defends. The Polisario Front is based in Tindouf, in southern Algeria.

Abdelaziz’s death comes at a critical time, with ties between Morocco and Algiers growing increasingly prickly, and Morocco increasingly assertive with the United Nations, which has worked for years to help settle the issue.

The Moroccan government has proposed wide-ranging autonomy for the region, but the Polisario Front insists on self-determination through a referendum for the local population — as called for in U.N. resolutions.

Morocco expelled most U.N. civilian staff last month after the U.N. chief used the word “occupation” to refer to the situation in the region following a visit to a camp for Western Sahara refugees in southern Algeria. The U.N. mission had nearly 500 military and civilian personnel but 83 were ordered to leave and a military liaison was ordered to close, crippling its operation.

In April, a top member of the Polisario Front, Bachir Mustafa Sayed, warned that war is possible over the disputed territory if the U.N. Security Council fails to set a timetable for a vote on self-determination.

Abdelaziz warned in an April letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that Morocco will have “a green light to a military aggression” unless the Security Council imposes “real and direct pressure” on Morocco to restore the U.N. mission’s work. He warned that the Sahrawi people in Western Sahara will defend their rights in the face of aggression “by all legitimate means, including armed struggle.”

The Polisario had mounted a desert war against Morocco after the territory was annexed. According to Article 46 of the Polisario’s internal rules, an extraordinary congress will be held to replace Abdelaziz in 40 days, at the close of the period of mourning, the Polisario statement said. The movement has appointed the head of the movement’s National Council, Khatri Abdouh, as interim Polisario leader.

Elaine Ganley reported from Paris. Samia Errazzouki in Ouarzazate, Morocco, contributed to this report.