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The Western Sahara is located at the northwest bend of North Africa, just south of Morocco, west of Algeria, and northwest of Mauritania. Its northwestern border is the Atlantic coast. The Western Sahara is the only United Nations-declared non-self-governing territory remaining in Africa. Formerly known as the Spanish Sahara before independence movements swept the African continent beginning in the late 1950s, the territory became independent of Spain when the former European colonial power withdrew in 1975. Since then, it has been subject to contentious claims by Morocco, Mauritania, and the Frente Polisario (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro). Mauritania dropped its claims in 1979. At that point Morocco, which already had sent troops into the northern two-thirds of the territory, extended its control into the southern part as well. Armed conflict intermittently erupted between Morocco and the Polisario until a ceasefire was declared in 1991. At that time, the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, known by its French acronym, MINURSO, was established and peacekeeping troops were sent to the region.
A UN-sponsored referendum was originally scheduled to take place in 1991 to allow the Sahrawis, the territory's indigenous peoples, to determine their political future. However, as of mid-2002, this referendum had yet to be held. Significant numbers of prisoners of war continued to be imprisoned by both Morocco and the Polisario. When the referendum does take place, the basic choices apparently will be either independent status for the Western Sahara as a separate country or integration with Morocco in a more permanent, legally sanctioned form. Numerous attempts to schedule the referendum have met with failure, primarily due to lack of agreement between Morocco and the Polisario as to exactly who should be allowed to vote. Because the Moroccan government has waged an active campaign to settle the Western Sahara's northern two-thirds in hopes of establishing a Moroccan claim, significant numbers of Moroccans now live within the Western Sahara. Additionally, tens of thousands of Sahrawis are living in camps outside the territory in Algeria, and to a lesser extent in Mauritania.
The Organization of African Unity (OAU) recognized the Western Sahara as an independent country in 1984, named the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic as the civilian arm of the Polisario. However, the broader international community has not recognized the territory as an independent state, and the United Nations continues to view the region as a non-self-governing territory awaiting self-determination. Tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees currently live in camps in Algeria across the border, near Tindouf. The economy of the Western Sahara is extremely poor, as the country, primarily a desert expanse, has no particularly valuable natural resources. The chief export is fish. As the U.S. State Department noted in its human rights report for the Western Sahara for 2001, "The 15 percent of the territory outside of Moroccan control do not have any major population centers or economic activity beyond nomadic herding."
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