A mainly desert territory in north-west Africa, Western Sahara is the subject of a decades-long dispute between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front.
The territory is phosphate-rich and believed to have offshore oil deposits. Most of it has been under Moroccan control since 1976.
Western Sahara fell under Spanish rule in 1884,becoming a Spanish province in 1934. Nationalism emerged in the 1960s, as nomadic Saharans, or Saharawis, settled in the region.
• Seized by Morocco after Spain and Mauritania withdrew
• Polisario Front seeks independence
• Morocco only prepared to grant autonomy
• Territory rich in phosphates, fisheries and possibly offshore oil
• Cease-fire in place since 1991
Polisario wasset up on 10 May 1973 and established itself as the sole representative of the Saharan people. Some 100,000 refugees still live in Polisario's camps in Algeria.
In October 1975 the International Court of Justice rejected territorial claims by Morocco and Mauritania. The court recognised the Saharawis' right to self-determination and Spain agreed to organise a referendum.
But inNovember 1975, Moroccan King Hassan II ordered a "Green March" of over 300,000 Moroccans into the territory. Spain backed down and negotiated a settlement with Morocco and Mauritania, known as the Madrid Agreement.
Signed on 14 November 1975, the deal partitioned the region. Morocco acquired two-thirds in the north and Mauritania the remaining third. Spain agreed to end colonial rule.
Polisariodeclared the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) on 27 February 1976 and announced its first government on 4 March.
The current SADR president, Mohamed Abdelaziz, was elected Polisario secretary-general in August 1976.
In August 1978, one month after a coup, a new Mauritanian government signed a peace deal with Polisario and renounced all territorial claims.
Morocco moved to occupy areasallocated to Mauritania. Algeria in turn allowed refugees to settle in its southern town of Tindouf, where Polisario still has its main base.
Polisario led a guerrilla war against Moroccan forces until 1991.
In April 1991 the UN established Minurso, the United Nations Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara. Its brief was to implement a peace plan outlined in a 1990 SecurityCouncil resolution. In September 1991 a UN-brokered ceasefire was declared.
• 1884: Spain colonises Western Sahara
• 1973: Polisario set up
• 1975: World Court rules people should decide on sovereignty
• 1975: "Green March", Spain agrees to hand over to Morocco, Mauritania
• 1976: Spain withdraws, SADR declared
• 1979: Morocco annexes Mauritania's share
• 1976-1991: Guerrillawarfare
• 1991: Minurso established
• 1991: Ceasefire declared
• 1996: UN suspends referendum moves
• 2001: Baker plan
• 2007-8: Talks fail to reach resolution
The peace plan provided for a transition period, leading to a referendum in January 1992. Western Saharans would choose between independence and integration with Morocco.
Minurso was to total 1,000 civilian and 1,700 militarypersonnel. Its brief was to monitor the ceasefire, the confinement of warring parties to designated areas and the exchange of prisoners.
While the ceasefire held, the mission was never fully deployed. Nor was the transition period ever completed. A key sticking point was an "identification process", to decide who was eligible to vote.
Identification was to be based on a census carried out by Spainin 1973. Polisario wanted to rule out Moroccans who settled in Western Sahara after the Green March.
In May 1996 the UN suspended the identification process and recalled most Minurso civilian staff. Military personnel stayed to oversee the truce.
Initial attempts to revive the process foundered over Morocco's worries that a referendum would not serve its interests.