Mohamed Abdelaziz the leader of the Polisario Front, the independence movement in the Western Sahara, has died after a long illness.
In a statement on Tuesday, Polisario announced the death of Abdelaziz and ordered a 40-day mourning period.
The statement, which was carried by The Sahara Press Service, said the movement will choose a secretary-general soon.
Sources close to the government in Algeria, where the movement is based, also reported Abdelaziz’s death.
Abdelaziz, who was in his late 60s, led Polisario Front for four decades, launching a fierce battle against Morocco for the independence of the desert region in Africa’s northwest.
Morocco annexed the vast, mineral-rich territory after Spain withdrew in 1975. It is currently viewed as Morocco’s “southern provinces” and the government continues to carry out multi-million-dollar development projects in the area.
However, neighboring Algeria, like numerous other African countries, recognizes the territory as the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, and hosts the headquarters of Polisario in Tindouf in its south.
Morocco has offered wide-ranging autonomy for the region; but Polisraio insists that a referendum be held so that the local population can decide their fate.
The death of Abdelaziz comes less than a month after the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon used the word “occupation” to refer to the situation in Western Sahara following a visit to a camp of refugees in southern Algeria. That prompted Morocco to expel most UN civilian staff and a military liaison office was ordered to close.
In a letter to Ban, Abdelaziz urged the UN Security Council to impose “real and direct pressure” on Morocco to restore the UN mission’s work.
Leaders of the group warned in April that that if the UN Security Council fails to set a timetable for a vote on self-determination, war will be possible over the disputed territory.