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Africa, Western Sahara

Western Sahara, region in northwestern Africa. Formerly known as Spanish Sahara, it was an overseas province of Spain from 1958 until 1976, when it was partitioned between Mauritania and Morocco. Since 1979, it has been occupied entirely by Morocco. Western Sahara encompasses about 252,120 sq km (about 97,344 sq mi); it is bounded on the north by Morocco, on the northeast by Algeria, on the east and south by Mauritania, and on the west by the Atlantic Ocean.

With a hot, arid climate, and composed mostly of rocky and sandy soils, the region is not suitable for sedentary agriculture, but some sheep, goats, and camels are raised by nomadic herders. The territory has rich deposits of phosphates, notably at Bu Craa; exploitation of the deposits began in the early 1970s. The population of the region is 256,177 (2002 estimate), mostly Berbers and Arabs. The main towns are El Aaiun, or Laayoune, which was formerly the capital of Spanish Sahara, and Ad Dakhla, which was formerly Villa Cisneros.

Portuguese navigators visited the area near modern El Aaiun in 1434 but did not establish lasting settlements. Spain held the region from 1509 to 1524, when it was taken by Morocco, which thereafter ruled it for more than three centuries. In 1884 Spain established a protectorate over the coast from Cape Bojador to Cape Blanc; Franco-Spanish agreements in 1900, 1904, and 1920 extended the limits of the protectorate. Spain divided its possession into two separately administered districts, Rio de Oro in the south and Saguia el Hamra in the north. The two were amalgamated in 1958 when the overseas province of Spanish Sahara was established.

In the early 1970s nationalists in Spanish Sahara sought independence for the territory, while Algeria, Mauritania, and Morocco laid claims to the area. In late 1975, as Morocco prepared to launch a massive nonviolent invasion of Spanish Sahara, Spain agreed to relinquish the area to Mauritania and Morocco. The Spaniards departed in February 1976; two-thirds of the territory was then occupied by Morocco and the rest by Mauritania. Algeria protested the partition and supported the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario Front), a nationalist group seeking to transform the former Spanish Sahara into an independent country. The Polisario staged several guerrilla raids into Mauritania and Morocco during 1976-1978. When Mauritania surrendered its portion and made peace with the Polisario in 1979, Morocco laid claim to all of Western Sahara and continued the war alone. The Polisario-backed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic received the recognition of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in February 1982, when it was admitted as a member. Between 1980 and 1987, as the war continued, Morocco constructed a wall of sand and rock 3 m (9 ft) high and almost 3,200 km (2,000 mi) long around Western Sahara that successfully limited Polisario's capability of attacking from Mauritania and southern Algeria.

Under a United Nations-sponsored peace plan, a truce took effect in Western Sahara in September 1991, and a referendum on self-determination was planned to follow. However, this referendum has been postponed repeatedly due to disagreements over the number of Western Saharan eligible voters.

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