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Longtime Western Sahara independence leader dies

The longtime leader of Western Sahara's independence movement has died. Mohamed Abdelaziz's death comes during a tense period over the territory's status.

Mohamed Abdelaziz headed the Polisario Front independence movement for nearly four decades, battling Morocco on the battlefield and on the diplomatic front to win a state for his Sahrawi people.

In his late 60s, Abdelaziz had suffered from an illness for some time. Polisario Front said it would pick a new secretary-general following a 40-day mourning period.

His death comes at a tense time over the future of Western Sahara, after Morocco in April

kicked out most UN civilian staff

when Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon referred to the territory as under "occupation."

Morocco annexed Western Sahara after colonial power Spain withdrew in 1975. Polisario Front fighters then launched a desert war against Moroccan forces until a 1991

UN-backed ceasefire

put a halt to the fighting.

Morocco has offered Western Sahara a form of autonomy, but the Polisario Front demand a referendum for independence as required under UN resolutions.

Most African countries recognize the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, including Morocco's neighbor Algeria, where Polisario is based in the southern town of Tindouf. The area is where Abdelaziz also lived and remains home to Sahrawi refugees.

Algeria's support for the group is a source of tension between the neighbors.

Abdelaziz's death casts doubt on what course Polsario Front will take, with some in the movement tiring over the absence of a referendum and questioning the ceasefire now that the UN has been kicked out.

In April, a top member of the Polisario Front, Bachir Mustafa Sayed, warned there could be a return to war if the UN fails to set a date for a referendum on self-determination.

The Polisario Front appointed the head of the group's National Council, Khatri Adduh, as interim leader.

cw/jr (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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