The long-standing leader of Western Sahara’s separatist movement, Mohamed Abdelaziz, died on Tuesday after more three decades of leading a fight for independence for the disputed territory from Morocco.
Abdelaziz, who was 68 and the Polisario Front’s secretary general and president of its self-declared Sahrawi Republic, had suffered from a long illness, the movement’s Sahara Press Service and Algeria’s state news agency said.
His death came at a sensitive time for the Western Sahara, after Morocco earlier this year expelled part of a United Nations peacekeeping mission from the territory after a disagreement with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Morocco took over most of the territory in 1975, but Abdelaziz’s Polisario Front began a guerrilla war saying the desert region in Africa’s northwest belongs to them. Polisario has been based in Algeria since a U.N. ceasefire in 1991.
Algeria’s government declared eight days of mourning after his death was announced. Polisario rules state that the movement’s assembly president takes over for 40 days after which an extraordinary session will be held to choose a new leader.
Abdelaziz, who lived in the Sahrawi refugee camp in southern Algeria, had led the Polisario though a period a struggle and into the U.N.-backed truce. Since 1991, the dispute has been frozen by a deadlock over how to hold a referendum on the territory’s future.
Polisario representatives say Morocco put the ceasefire at risk by expelling U.N. staffers and trying to scuttle the referendum, including on the question of independence. Morocco has offered an autonomy plan as the only way forward.