By Hassan Isilow
JOHANNESBURG (AA) – South African President Jacob Zuma joined the African Union on Wednesday in sending condolences to the people of Western Sahara on the death of their leader, Mohamed Abdelaziz.
Abdelaziz was secretary general of the Polisario Front, a movement fighting for separation of Western Sahara from Morocco. He died Tuesday in his late 60’s following a long illness.
Zuma said that “until his passing he had remained committed to the process of peaceful negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations, for the holding of a referendum on the self-determination of Western Sahara”.
The conflict over Western Sahara began in 1975 following the end of the Spanish occupation of the North African region.
In 1976, the Polisario Front 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.
Abdelaziz had led the Polisario front since 1976.
Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, ordered flags at AU headquarters to fly at half-mast, for three days as they mourn the passing of Saharawi leader.
“Our hearts and prayers are with you as you mourn the death of your leader and beloved president. Your loss is our loss.” she said in a statement.
She said the African Union reiterates its "continued support and unwavering solidarity with the government and people of the Saharawi Republic".