Mohammed Abdelaziz, the longtime leader of a movement to create an independent state for the indigenous Berber tribesmen in Western Sahara, died on Tuesday. He was 68.
The movement, known as the Polisario Front, said Mr. Abdelaziz died after a long illness.
The Polisario Front was formed in the early 1970s by a group of Sahrawis, indigenous nomadic Berber tribesmen, in opposition to Spain’s colonial presence in Western Sahara. When Spain withdrew from the region in 1975, the Sahrawis fought attempts by both Mauritania and Morocco to claim the territory.
For four decades, Mr. Abdelaziz served as general secretary of the Polisario Front and as president of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, its government in exile, based in a refugee settlement at Tindouf in neighboring Algeria.
Born in 1948 in the town of Smara, which currently lies in the Moroccan-held part of Western Sahara, Mr. Abdelaziz joined the Polisario Front movement as a student and was elected to its political bureau at its founding congress in 1973.
He was selected as secretary general in 1976 after the death in combat of the front’s military leader, Al Ouali Mustapha Erraqibi. Later that year, he was elected president of the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
Backed by Algeria, and with support from Cuba and other socialist countries, the Polisario Front waged a 16-year war against Morocco. It proved to be an able and canny guerrilla force, seizing weapons and capturing hundreds of Moroccan soldiers.
Nevertheless, when the United Nations brokered a cease-fire in 1991, Morocco controlled most of Western Sahara and annexed the territory to establish southern provinces. The Polisario Front was left with a smaller portion along the borders with Algeria and Mauritania.
Peacekeeping forces from the United Nations have monitored the cease-fire since then, but efforts to reach a political settlement have failed. Morocco has offered the Sahrawis broad autonomy under Moroccan rule, while the Polisario Front insists on a referendum on self-determination. Tens of thousands of Sahrawis have lived in refugee camps in neighboring Algeria and Mauritania since 1976.
Mr. Abdelaziz was seen as a moderate voice who supported efforts by the United Nations to find a peaceful resolution to the dispute, and had overruled military hard-liners in the movement who pushed for a continuation of war.
With Algeria’s backing, Mr. Abdelaziz won both recognition for the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic from a number of African states and its acceptance as a member of the African Union in 1982.
His death came at a time of renewed friction between Morocco and Algeria over the disputed region after the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, visited a Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria and described Morocco’s presence in Western Sahara as an occupation.
Morocco reacted by expelling 84 civilian members of the United Nations peacekeeping mission from its territory, and some Sahrawi leaders have warned of a possible return to conflict between the sides.
The Polisario Front announced that Khatri Abdouh, head of the movement’s national council, will serve as interim leader. After a 40-day mourning period for Mr. Abdelaziz, the group said, a new secretary general will be elected at a special congress.