Polisario chief dies ‘after long illness’
ALGIERS - The Polisario Front which demands the Western Sahara's independence from Morocco said Tuesday that its secretary general Mohamed Abdelaziz has died "after a long illness", Algeria's APS news agency reported.
Abdelaziz, 69, had been leader of the Algeria-backed Polisario since 1976 after the group was founded three years previously to struggle for independence for the former Spanish colony.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on Tuesday decreed eight days' national mourning, state television reported.
It added that the president had opened a meeting of the cabinet by observing a minute's silence in tribute to the independence leader.
"This is a great loss for the Sahrawi people", Polisario official Mohammed Keddad said.
"He sacrificed his life for the liberation of Western Sahara. He embodied the wisdom and a sincere and firm commitment to its liberation", he added.
The United Nations has been trying to broker a Western Sahara settlement since 1991 after a ceasefire was reached to end a war that broke out when Morocco deployed its military in the territory in 1975.
Local Sahrawi people are campaigning for the right to self-determination, but Morocco considers the territory as part of the kingdom and insists its sovereignty cannot be challenged.
In March this year, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met Abdelaziz and also said he would spare no effort in trying to find a political solution in the Western Sahara.
When he met Ban at a refugee camp in Tindouf in Algeria, Abdelaziz appeared to be in poor health.
Repeated bids by UN mediators to hold a referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawis in the vast territory have since failed.
Since 2007, Morocco has proposed a plan for autonomy under its sovereignty, but this is rejected by the Polisario Front which demands a referendum on self-determination.