BIPPI B's Independent Pro-Peace Initiative  

Dispute for control of Western Sahara – 1975/1991 (to present day)


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In the second half of the 19th century several European powers tried to get a foothold in Africa. France occupied Tunisia and Great Britain Ottoman Egypt. Italy took possession of parts of Eritrea, Belgium invaded Congo while Germany declared Togo, Cameroon and South West Africa to be under its protection. It was the so-called Scramble for Africa, the very start of a new wave of colonialism.

After the agreement among the European colonial powers at the Berlin Conference (1884 - 1885) on the division of spheres of influence in Africa, Spain seized control of the Western Sahara and declared it to be a Spanish protectorate in a series of wars against the local tribes.
Spanish colonial rule began to unravel with the general wave of decolonization after World War II, which saw Europeans lose control of North African and sub-Saharan Africa possessions and protectorates. Spanish decolonization in particular began rather late, as internal political and social pressures for it in mainland Spain built up towards the end of Francisco Franco's rule, and in combination with the global trend towards complete decolonization

Read more about the colonial-rule in Western Sahara.

The UN's involvement in the Western Sahara issue started 1963, when the UN included Western Sahara in the list of countries to which the principle of self-determination has to be applied.  Then, in October 1964, the Committee for the Decolonization of the UN adopted a resolution asking to Spain the application, for Ifni and the Western Sahara, of the General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) of 14 December 1960, on the right to independence of the Countries under colonial domination.  On December 16, 1965 the General Assembly adopted its first resolution on what was then called Spanish Sahara, requesting Spain to "take all necessary measures" to decolonize the territory, while entering into negotiations on "problems relating to sovereignty".

Even the OAU Council of Ministers had adopted its first resolution on Western Sahara, at its 1st summit in Cairo, July 1966, asking the Member States "to respect the existing borders at the time when they reached independence".

Between 1966 and 1973 the UN General Assembly adopted seven more resolutions on the territory, all of which reiterated the need to hold a referendum on self-determination. Thus, the UN stated in unambiguous terms from the start that the Western Sahara conflict could be resolved only through an act of self-determination, in keeping with the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. This position has been maintained by the organization up to the present day.
At the same time, Morocco and Mauritania, which had historical claims of sovereignty over the territory based on competing traditional claims, argued that the territory was artificially separated from their territories by the European colonial powers. The third neighbour of Spanish Sahara, Algeria, viewed these demands with suspicion, influenced also by its long-running rivalry with Morocco.

In the meanwhile a re-organization of the Saharawi indipendentist forces began in the cities, in the towns and among the refugees in the near countries, starting with sporadic demonstrations against the Spanish domination.  Such process brought Mohamed Sidi Brahim Bassiri to found, in 1967, an indipendentist and clandestine political organization, known as "Harakat Tahrir Saguia El Hamra wa Uad Ed-Dahab" or simply "Movement for the Liberation of the Sahara" (MLS), whose objective was to re-unite and canalize the popular forces and aspirations.
The first actions of the Movement did not have military character and took the shape of civil resistance: strikes, demonstrations, teaching of the Arabic language and the Saharawi history.

A curfew was decreed in 1969, followed by a series of arrestations and expulsions, which moved the UN to recall Spain to the application of resolution 1514 (XV) on the decolonization.
In the same year the Spanish enclave of Ifni in the south became part of the new Morocco, which even claimed the Spanish-controlled enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, as well as Perejil Island (Layla Island). 

In June 17, 1970, the colonial government called for a Saharawi manifestation in Laâyoune in order to express the adhesion to the Mother Native land (Spain).
Bassiri's Movement took advantage of the occasion to organize an intensive campaign to mobilize the Saharawi people on behalf of their independence. This led to a large, peaceful manifestation openly against the colonialism and to forward to Spain a document of demand for independence of the territory. 

As few hundreds of people gathered in the Plaza of Africa in support of the Spanish organized rally, a larger crowd was also gathering in Zemla, a neighbourhood on the east side of Laâyoune, and asked the governor-general of Spanish Sahara, General Jose Maria Perez de Lema y Tejero, to come to Zemla in order to receive the movement's petition.  The General came and the petition was read out. Afterwards, he ordered the demonstrators to disperse. A couple hours later, a strong squad of police came to the gathering and began arresting some of the movement leaders. The crowd reacted by throwing stones at the police force which requested the help of the Spanish Foreign Legion (El Tercio).

The intervention of the Spanish Foreign Legion made things worse, their presence infuriated more the demonstrators.  The Legion opened fire and by some accounts eleven people were killed, though there has never been a general consensus on the number of casualties.

After the so-called Zemla intifada, manifestations took place in Smara and Dakhla (the greater centers of the Western Sahara). Severe repressive measures on MSL followed these demonstrations. Hundreds were arrested, some deported and others fled the country. Bassiri (the movement's leader) would be arrested soon after this massacre. This incident marked the death of MLS and laid the grounds for the birth, three years later, of the most successful and better known Saharawi movement: Frente Polisario.

Until this moment, except the "heroic" period of resistance to European colonialisms, the Saharawis were instruments in the hands of the colonial powers or of brother countries.  Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria demanded loudly the departure of the Spaniards from the area and called for self-determination to be exercised in Western Sahara in line with UN resolutions, being their demand about their own claims more than about the freedom of the natives, and mostly they prevented any attempt to hold a self-determination referendum. 
But after Zemla's incidents Saharawis will be more and more on the scene.
The news of the slaughter also created a lot more awareness in the international community concerning the fight of the Saharawi for freedom.

UN resolutions passed in 1972 (n. 2983) and 1973 (n. 3162), affirming the right of Saharawis to self determination and independence, in conformity with universally recognised principles preserved in the UN Charter and other instruments.
Spain didn't deny that right but it also didn't take any positive steps towards it. 

Morocco, like Spain, didn't contest the right of self-determination, but argued that the Saharawis had already exercised their right and opted to be an integral part of the kingdom.  During these years King Hassan II created the Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs (CORCAS), an advisory committee to the Moroccan government on the Western Sahara, then considered as Morocco's southern provinces. 

The first phosphate exports were dispatched to Japan in 1972.  Spain began the exploitation of phosphate deposits with the help of 100 kilometers of conveyor up to the coast after Laâyoune, where in the meantime modern preparation and shipment plants were established. 

These economic changes led to a rapid urbanisation of Saharawi society, with the majority of the population giving up the harsh nomadic life and settling into the main towns.  Many of them took waged employment while others set up shops as traders.  Some changed from nomadic pastoralism to sedentary agriculture.  By 1974, 55% of the Saharawis recorded in that year’s census were living in the three main towns (Villa Cisneros, Laâyoune and Smara, out of a total of 73.497 Saharawis recorded.  However, the 1974 Spanish census, which later became the basis for the promised self-determination referendum, actually “missed out” a large number of Saharawis, who had settled outside the artificial, colonially imposed borders of the Spanish Sahara.  At that time there must have been at least 75.000 Saharawis in the former Spanish Southern Morocco, northern Mauritania and south-western Algeria. 

On May 10, 1973, the Constitutive Congress for the Frente Polisario, was held under the theme of "By the gun we force freedom”. The Frente Polisario (Frente POpular para la LIberacion de SAguia el Hamra y RIO de Oro) was born as a political movement, coming from the meeting of survivors of the MLS with a group of Saharawi students in Morocco.  The spiritual father of the Front was El Wali Moustapha Sayed whose father was an ex-combatant of the Liberation Army.  The political movement was used to turn people in favour of national independence, to explain the situation of the colony on the international level, and to accelerate the moral and financial support to the cause.  They asserted the independence of the Western Sahara, promised by Spain. 

The political declaration of this first congress analysed the context of the period and the deep reasons that pushed Saharawi People to bare arms and to declare armed struggle against Spanish colonial administration after the failure of peaceful struggle, violently oppressed in June the 17th 1970 by the colonizer.

In clear terms the declaration announced the reasons behind this inevitable choice: "regarding the colonizer’s persistent will of dominion over our People, the attempt to destroy it by ignorance, poverty, division and its parting from Arab world and the Maghreb", and considering "the failure of all peaceful attempts... The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia et El-Hamraand Rio de Oro is constituted as the unique popular expression, adopting armed action as a mean to totally liberate arabo-africain People of Western Sahara from Spanish colonialism".

Polisario created an armed division known as the Saharawi Popular Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Popular Sahraoui - ELPS).  As soon as it was established it began to fight against the occupants.  Essentially, they were carrying out short and quick raids on limited goals, following a guerrilla warfare. 

The armed struggle was announced on the 20th of May, 1973, simultaneously with the development of the political movement. 
The same day Polisario attacked on the Spanish post of El-Khanga.  

On February 20, 1973, the provincial council, the Djema'a, asked officially Franco's Spain to allow greater participation in the territory's administration, kind of autonomy. On September 21st Franco sent a letter in response to Djema'a where he assured that Spanish state solemnly repeats and guarantees that Saharawis will be able to govern themselves.  During it's session between the 13th and 15th of November 1973, Djema'a examined the Spanish project and development plan worth 20 billion Spanish pesetas in 1974/78 period.

By 1974, the Spanish regime was in serious difficulties at home while colonial troops and Polisario forces clashed at Galb Lahmar and Aoukeyra at the beginning of the year.  A pre-revolutionary situation was opening up with mass working class action and the threat that the overthrow of the weakened dictatorship would open the way for socialist transformation.  The Spanish ruling class was terrified.  They feared the effects that a guerrilla war in the Sahara would have on the situation in Spain.  The example of the Portuguese revolution that year, triggered partly by the disastrous colonial wars in Angola and Mozambique, accelerated its plans for internal self-government in Western Sahara.  In the same time it was not possible to have a quarrel with Morocco or with Morocco's best sponsor, USA, partly motivated by misgivings (completely groundless) that the Polisario had communist leanings.

Spain knew that, if the conflict with Morocco degenerated into war, the Moroccan forces would not take the air force and the Spanish army, definitely stronger in number and equipment.  The Spanish armed forces counted 302.000 troops, that is to say five times more than the FAR which had only 61.000, and the Air Force of Spain had twice more fighters.  Some 20.000 Spanish soldiers, including the regiments of elite of the Foreign Legion, were posted in the Western Sahara, without speaking about the thousands of troops in the Canary Islands.
But the consequences of a military confrontation with Morocco in the field of the interior Spanish policy, while the General Franco was old of 82 years and near to death, would be incalculable.  The Spanish population was not laid out to accept a war, and if a conflict burst, Spain would have been exposed to the diplomatic and economic reprisals of the Arab world.

In April 1974 the Polisario took part in the Pan-African Youth Movement meeting in Benghazi, supported by Mauritania and Libya and opposed by Algeria and Morocco.   

When the Spanish government formally announced plans for internal autonomy of Sahara, then King Hassan II protested to Franco and launched major diplomatic campaign to lobby for support for Moroccan claim, sending political leaders of the Istiqlal Party, the USFP, to world capitals.  Consequently Algeria, regional rival of Morocco, began for first time to give some low-key help to the Polisario as the government of Houari Boumédiènne committed itself to support the full independence of Western Sahara, in opposition to  Moroccan and Mauritanian claims.

On August 20, 1974, Spain announced  that a referendum on self-determination would be held in the first six months of 1975 and took a census of the region in order to assess the voting population.  According to this census, which left out some of the nomads, there were then 73.497 Saharawis and 21.522 Europeans and nationals of other countries in this area. 
So, after years of intense opposition, Spain was obliged to recognize the right to the self-determination and independence of Saharawis; the troops started to abandon the numerous emplacements in the hinterland while the Polisario was holding its second congress clearly deciding in favour of national independence.

But King Hassan II affirmed he could not accept a referendum including the option of independence and warned that Morocco would go to war to annex Western Sahara if diplomatic means fail.

In these years the power of the Moroccan monarchy was in serious crisis, and military authorities were suspected of being responsible of two attacks to the life of the king.  Hassan II took in hand the flag of the recovery of the 'Moroccan Sahara', gathering together, around the topic of national integrity, all the parties, taking away the attention from the inner problems and neutralizing, also with the violence, every opposition.  The claims of Hassan II on the Western Sahara were only a part of the dream of Greater Morocco that aimed at 'the recovery' also of part of Algeria and Mali and the entire Mauritania.

In Mauritania, home policies were failing. The economy was stagnating and remained strongly dependent on French aid. Moreover, drought in the Sahel, principally in the period between 1969 and 1974, and decline in export revenues due to fall in international prices of iron, had lowered living standards considerably. 

On September 17, 1974, King Hassan II announced his intention to bring the issue to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).  The proposal was accepted by Mauritania. 
In October, Polisario supporters sabotaged two control stations of Bou-Craa phosphates conveyor belt.
In December the UN General Assembly adopted the resolution 3292 (XXIX) requesting "the International Court of Justice, without prejudice to the application of the principles embodied in General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV), to give an advisory opinion at an early date on the following questions:

"I. Was Western Sahara (Saguia El-Hamra y Rio de Oro) at the time of colonization by Spain a territory belonging to no one (terra nullius)?"

"II. What were the legal ties between this territory and the Kingdom of Morocco and the Mauritanian entity?"

On January 16, 1975, Spain officially announced the suspension of the referendum plan, pending the opinion of the court. 65% of Bou-Craa exploitation was sold to Morocco. King Hassan II of Morocco and the President of Mauritania Ould Daddah made an agreement about their mutual requests to the IJC.  Algerian foreign minister, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, contested the Moroccan claim at a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers.

In May-June an important mission of enquiry was sent by the UN secretary-general, Kurt Waldheim to Western Sahara, Spain, Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria. Its three members were Simeon Aké (chairman), Marta Jiménez Martinez, and Manouchehr Pishva, diplomats from Ivory Coast, Cuba, and Iran respectively.
The mission toured Spanish Sahara on May 12-19, 1975, after initially having been denied entry by Spanish authorities. On May 8-12 and again on May 20-22, it visited Madrid, Spain; and from May 28 to June 1, it toured the neighbouring countries Mauritania, Morocco and Algeria; in Algeria it also met with leaders of the Polisario Front.

Huge popular demonstrations welcomed the mission; a crushing majority proclaimed support to the Frente Polisario and asserted the independence of the country.  The demonstrations followed one another and all highlighted a political awakening of the population.  The PUNS (Partido de Unificación Nacional Saharaui created by Spanish will the year before), appeared inconsistent.  Morocco-baked Morehob and the FLU were presented as movements of liberation of Sahara, but they hardly manage to present their "movements".  In Algeria, in the first refugee camps, towards Tindouf, the support for the Frente Polisario and independence appeared incontestable.  In Mauritania, in spite of the setting in scene of the authorities, demonstrations of support to the Frente Polisario were highlighted.

The mission's conclusions about the wishes of the Saharawi people were given on September 15, 1975, and they were unambiguous:

"Owing to the large measure of cooperation which received from the Spanish authorities, the Mission was able, despite the shortness of its stay in the Territory, to visit virtually all the main population centres and to ascertain the views of the overwhelming majority of their inhabitants. At every place visited, the Mission was met by mass political demonstrations and had numerous private meetings with representatives of every section of the Saharan community.

From all these, it became evident to the Mission that there was an overwhelming consensus among Saharans within the Territory in favour of independence and opposing integration with any neighbouring country....

The Mission believes, in the light of what it witnessed in the Territory, especially the mass demonstrations of support for one movement, the Frente Polisario..., that its visit served as a catalyst to bring into the open political forces and pressures which had previously been largely submerged. It was all the more significant to the Mission that this came as a surprise to the Spanish authorities who, until then, had only been partly aware of the profound political awakening of the population."

Soon after the ICJ held its first session on the Western Sahara problem in The Hague.
In the meanwhile, the Spanish Government made to an official advertisement saying that "the Saharawi people should prepare for a transfer of power as soon as possible".  The Spanish foreign minister, Pedro Cortina y Mauri, met El Wali Moustapha Sayed in Algiers agreeing to hand power progressively to the Polisario in return for major concessions to Spain over phosphates and fisheries.
Consequently, the Djemaa indicated a "Joint Committee of service" like "provisional embryo of government".

Around 1975, after important Spanish investments, the annual production rose up to 2/3 million tons a year, making of the Western Sahara the 6th world phosphate producer.
However, the capacity of export of Western Sahara could have risen up to 10 million tons in the 1980s, which would have reached the United States, second phosphate exporter of the world, and would not have been far behind Morocco, which was the first phosphate exporter with 16,4 million tons in 1980. Thus the past export monopoly of Morocco was in danger

On October 16, 1975 the IJC emitted its clear advisory opinion: on one side the Western Sahara was not a 'no man's land' before the Spanish occupation, there was evidence of a tie of allegiance between some, though not all, of the tribal chiefs and the Kingdom of Morocco and the Mauritanian entity. "Thus the Court has not found legal ties of such a nature as might affect the application of General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV) in the decolonization of Western Sahara and, in particular, of the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory."

"(…) the Court finds that neither the internal nor the international acts relied upon by Morocco indicate the existence at the relevant period of either the existence or the international recognition of legal ties of territorial sovereignty between Western Sahara and the Moroccan State. Even taking account of the specific structure of that State, they do not show that Morocco displayed any effective and exclusive State activity in Western Sahara. They do, however, provide indications that a legal tie of allegiance existed at the relevant period between the Sultan and some, but only some, of the nomadic peoples of the territory, through Tekna caids of the Noun region, and they show that the Sultan displayed, and was recognized by other States to possess, some authority or influence with respect to those tribes. (…)

The information before the Court discloses that, while there existed among them many ties of a racial, linguistic, religious, cultural and economic nature, the emirates and many of the tribes in the (Mauritanian) entity were independent in relation to one another; they had no common institutions or organs. The Mauritanian entity therefore did not have the character of a personality or corporate entity distinct from the several emirates or tribes which comprised it. The Court concludes that at the time of colonization by Spain there did not exist between the territory of Western Sahara and the Mauritanian entity any tie of sovereignty or of allegiance of tribes, or of simple inclusion in the same legal entity. Nevertheless, the General Assembly does not appear to have so framed Question II as to confine the question exclusively to those legal ties which imply territorial sovereignty, which would be to disregard the possible relevance of other legal ties to the decolonization process. The Court considers that, in the relevant period, the nomadic peoples of the Chinguetti country possessed rights, including some rights relating to the lands through which they migrated. These rights constituted legal ties between Western Sahara and the Mauritanian entity. They were ties which knew no frontier between the territories and were vital to the very maintenance of life in the region."

The opinion of the Court was interpreted differently by the different parties, and each focused on what it sees as supporting its claims.
While Morocco and Mauritania found in the answers to the two questions, a recognition that their claims are legitimate and historically based, Algeria and the Polisario focused on the penultimate paragraph, according to which court's decision was not an obstacle to the application of self-determination through the ongoing Spanish referendum.
Hours later the delivering of the advisory opinion, King Hassan II claimed the opposite. The Hague, he told his subjects, had vindicated his irredentism: 350,000 Moroccan civilians would march into the Western Sahara as mujahedin to “reclaim” it for the motherland.
Following Hassan’s announcement of the Green March, Spain asked the UN Security Council to stop Hassan.  The response, considered weak by the Spanish government, forced Madrid to pursue a bilateral dialogue with Morocco. Visiting Hassan on a pre-scheduled trip to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Assistant Secretary of State, Alfred Atherton, reported on 22 October that Morocco and Spain had reached a mutually face-saving agreement to allow a march. They would then to use the UN to legitimate a Moroccan takeover through a controlled plebiscite, thereby allowing Spain to gracefully bow out.

The UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim visited Spain, Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria, proposing a solution based on the “West Irian precedent.” (In 1961 Indonesia invaded Western New Guinea, now West Irian Jaya, before the Dutch colony could achieve independence. The territory was placed briefly under UN administration in 1962, and passed to Indonesia in 1963. A controversial self-determination referendum formalised Indonesian sovereignty in 1969)   (

In the same days 12,000 Saharawis demonstrated in support of Polisario in Laâyoune (October 26-27) .

The Green March, which took place in October/November 1975, was the most important event in the Reign of Hassan II. 

The Spanish soldiers had already started to withdraw small isolated outposts which the guerillas of the Polisario quickly took the control of. Moroccan troops crossed the frontier in October 31 and clashed with Polisario guerrillas near Farsia, Hausa and Echderia, all places in northeast. The Spanish armed forces did not make any attempt to stop the clashes and the government of Madrid did even not protest at Rabat against the violation of the border of the Western Sahara by the Moroccan troops. The Spanish authorities launched Operation Golondrina, a compulsory evacuation program for Spanish civilians.

On November 5, 1975, King Hassan ordered 350.000 unarmed Moroccans, Koran in hand, protected by the army, to march into the north of Western Sahara to reassert the sovereignty of the Territory.  On November 6, the UN Security Council "deplored" this action and ordered Hassan to withdraw the marchers.
In spite of this Moroccan forces immediately began their occupation and an agreement was signed between Morocco and Mauritania about their zones of influence.

The Algerian assistance to Polisario coincided with Moroccan military invasion. At that time the Algerian army was spread along the Algerian-Morrocan border.  On his side, Lybian leader Kadhafi announced that any aggression against the Algerian Revolution would be regarded as an aggression against the Libyan Revolution.  The Algerian material support to the Saharawis was accompanied even in these beginnings of the conflict by an engagement of certain elements by the Algerian army at the sides by Polisario.

On November 14, 1975, Spain, Morocco and Mauritania signed the tripartite Madrid Agreement which marked the passage of power in February to the temporary Morocco-Mauritanian administration.  

"I.  Spain confirms its resolve, repeatedly stated in the United Nations, to decolonize the Territory of Western Sahara by terminating the responsibilities and powers which it possesses over that Territory as administering Power."

"II.  In conformity with the afore-mentioned determination and in accordance with the negotiations advocated by the United Nations with the affected parties, Spain will proceed forthwith to institute a temporary administration in the Territory, in which Morocco and Mauritania will participate in collaboration with the Djemaa and to which will be transferred all the responsibilities and powers referred to in the preceding paragraph."

By the Madrid Agreements Morocco acquired the northern two-thirds of the territory, while Mauritania acquired the southern third. The agreement also included the proviso that Spain would retain shares in the Bou-Craa mining enterprise. Mauritania acquiesced to the agreements under the assumption, probably correct, that Morocco, with its superior military power, would otherwise have absorbed the entire territory. On November 24, 1975, four days after the death of Franco, Spain withdrew. Soon after 67 of the 102 members of the Djema'a signed the Proclamation of Guelta Zemmur, declaring the assembly's dissolution and the creation of a pro-Polisario Provisional Saharawi National Council made by 40 members.

But a transitional tripartite administration, headed by the Spanish governor-general, was set-up, following the arrival in Laâyoune of a Moroccan deputy governor, Ahmed Bensouda, and a Mauritanian deputy governor, Abdellahi Ould Cheikh.

Smara in the north was occupied by Moroccan troops, therefore like other centres.  The resistance tried to oppose but tens of thousands Saharawis began to leave the cities and the occupied zones.
On 10 December, 1975, the UN approved two resolutions in contradiction between them, substantially not taking position.
Moroccan troops arrived in Laâyoune; Mauritanian army also attacked, helped by Moroccan and French military advisers, and after 10 days of bombings took the control of Tichla and La Guera at Cape Blanc, then of Lagouira.  The area became the 13th region of Mauritania, re-named Tiris el-Gharbia.
Polisario attacked the conveyor belt from Bou-Craa, forcing a halt to phosphate mining for several years.

Algeria sent its troops deep into the territory of Western Sahara, which led to the first and last direct military confrontation between units of the Moroccan armed forces and the Algerian national army, in February 1976.  A battle took place  in Amgala, nearly 300 km from the Algerian border.  Both sides took casualties and prisoners. Diplomatic intervention from Saudi Arabia and Egypt prevented the situation from escalating further.

Thousands of people fled to Algeria, in the region of Tindouf, to escape the violence of the fighting.
On February 18, 1976
, the columns of refugees (mainly women, children and old) moving on Oum Dreiga, Tifariti, Mahbès, Guelta Zemmour, were victims of bombardments with napalm, phosphorus and cluster bombs by Moroccan aviation. Many were reported dead near Guelta Zemmour and Bir Lahlou.

According to Polisario, their aim at that time was to protect the civil population which fled the cities to escape the extreme violence from the occupation troops, such as napalm bombings. Since then, the Polisario has been committed to a process of modernising traditional Saharan society and overcoming tribalism as a form of social organisation.  The actual organisation of the refugee camps is presented to the exterior world like a kind of perfect society.

According to Morocco, people were intimidated and forced by the Polisario to leave the cities and join Tindouf against their will.  Moroccan supporters give examples like attacking on a small village beside Smara in 1979 and kindnaping 700 inhabitants.  Morocco talks about "true dictatorial, repressive, sometimes terrorist nature (of Polisario) which was hidden behind the misleading image of combatants for a cause", and gives to Polisario the whole responsibility of what happened in those days.

According to United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition: "By late 1975, thousands of people had fled annexed territories to camps in the east of the region. After the camps had been bombarded with napalm, people moved further to south-west Algeria, near the oasis town of Tindouf. Some 155.000 to 165.000 people, according to different estimates, mainly women, children and the elderly, are settled in four camps in this isolated desert area. The camps are administered by SADR ministries. Isolation and the environmental hostility of the area makes humanitarian aid difficult to deliver and impedes refugee selfsufficiency."

Spain officially ended its administration in Western Sahara on February 26, 1976, as the UN received communication of the end of the Spanish presence in the territory and Spain's last soldier departed the territory. Spanish Foreign Minister, Areilza, affirmed that Spain did not transfer to Morocco and Mauritania the sovereignty over the territory but only transferred its administration. The next day, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic was declared by Polisario representatives.
From this moment on, according to the United Nations, Western Sahara will form part of the non-autonomous territories.

In those days the Special UN Envoy sent in February could only verify the impossibility of a free consultation among the population.