By Mohammed Tahiri and Abdel Razek Abdullah
RABAT (AA) - Mohamed Abdelaziz, secretary-general of the Polisario Front, died following a long struggle with illness, according to the front-run Sahara Press Service.
Abdelaziz died on Tuesday at the age of 69.
In 1976, Abdelaziz was elected leader of the Polisario Front, which has long called for the independence of Morocco’s Western Sahara region.
He remained leader of the group until his death.
The front has declared a 40-day mourning period. The group’s National Council will appoint an interim secretary-general until an exceptional conference can be held after 40 days at which a new leader will be selected.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, meanwhile, has declared an eight-day mourning period, according to the official Algeria Press Service.
Since the front was founded in the 1970s, Algeria has supported its calls for independence from Morocco.
Algeria hosts the front’s main headquarters, along with tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees.
The conflict over Western Sahara began in 1975 following the end of the Spanish occupation of the North African region.
In 1976, the Polisario unilaterally declared the establishment of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which -- although it lacked UN membership -- was formally recognized by a number of countries.
Morocco, however, which claimed sovereignty over the region, tried hard to convince these countries to withdraw recognition.
In 1984, Morocco withdrew its membership from the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) to protest the OAU’s formal recognition of the Sahrawi Republic.
In 1991, a ceasefire deal was signed between the Polisario Front and Morocco.
Rabat insists on its right to the Western Sahara region, but has proposed a self-rule system under Moroccan sovereignty.
The Polisario, for its part, demands that a popular referendum be held in Western Sahara to decide the region’s political fate -- a proposal backed by Algeria.