+   *    +     +     
About Us 
The Issues 
Our Research Products 
Order Publications 
Press Room 
Resources for Monitor Researchers 
Table of Contents
Country Reports
WESTERN SAHARA, Landmine Monitor Report 1999



Western Sahara is considered to be one of the most heavily mine-affected regions in the world. After years of colonial and post-colonial conflict, mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) litter the landscape. The sovereignty of the Western Sahara remains the subject of a dispute between the government of Morocco and the Polisario Front (Frente Polisario, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro). Moroccan and Polisario forces fought intermittently from 1975 to 1991, when a cease-fire went into effect and a United Nations peacekeeping force, MINURSO, was deployed to the region. Landmines have been used by both sides, and in particularly large numbers by Moroccan forces.

At the heart of the peace accord was an agreement to hold a free and fair referendum on self-determination or integration into the Moroccan Kingdom, but there have been long delays in the referendum process. The UN has proposed a new initiative with a referendum date of December 1999. The Polisario Front has approved, but the UN awaits the Moroccan government's acceptance of the plan. If implemented, a major task for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will be the repatriation of tens of thousands of refugees from the camps south of Tindouf, Algeria, as well as from other neighboring countries. The repatriation faces two major obstacles; supplying water and avoiding mined areas. UNHCR reconnaissance trips into the eastern portion of the territory have discovered numerous mined areas that cross the repatriation route.[1]

Mine Ban Policy

In 1976, the Polisario Front declared a government in exile, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. It was formally seated by the Organization of African Unity in 1984, and today is recognized by over seventy nations, mostly in Africa and Asia. However, it is not universally recognized and has no official representation in the United Nations, and thus was unable to sign the Mine Ban Treaty in Ottawa in December 1997. A senior Polisario official has told Landmine Monitor that the government is in favor of the treaty and its stipulations, and that the Polisario government would sign and ratify the treaty, if eligible to do so.[2] In a statement released on 1 March 1999, when the ban treaty entered into force, “the Saharawi government announced its willingness to sign” the Mine Ban Treaty and “its desire to participate” in the First Meeting of States Parties to the ban treaty in Maputo in early May 1999.[3] The POLISARIO government also called on the international community and NGOs mobilized in the fight against AP mines “to put pressure on Morocco so that the UN mission tasked with the elimination of mines can do its work.”[4]

Production, Transfer and Stockpiling

Considering the possibility of resumed fighting, the Polisario military has offered no information regarding the number, types or storage of landmines in its possession. It is difficult to track the source of Polisario military supplies, though Algeria and at one time Libya have supplied assistance.[5] Another source was what the Polisario Army could take from the Moroccans during the conflict. Western Sahara does not produce its own mines, and is not know to have exported mines.


The majority of mines in Western Sahara were used during the conflict that ensued after the departure of Spanish colonial forces in 1976. The conflict initially included Morocco, Frente Polisario and Mauritania; in 1979 Mauritania withdrew and made peace with Polisario. The Mauritanian role in the war left minefields in the southern portion of the province.[6]

The Moroccan strategy in the armed conflict became one of attrition. In 1981, the Moroccans began construction on the first of six defensive walls, known as berms. These earthen walls with a height of about three meters were fortified with antitank and antipersonnel landmines. The first berm was completed in 1982, effectively closing off the northwestern portion of the territory. Successive berms were completed in 1984, 1985, and 1987, consolidating Moroccan held areas from the north to the south with the sixth and final berm closing off a majority of the southern portion of the territory.[7]

In addition to the estimated one to two million mines used to fortify the berm, mines were used by all parties throughout the conflict.[8] Polisario forces deployed mines as they retreated in the face of the Moroccan advance leaving minefields within the area presently under Moroccan control.[9] The Moroccans also made advances beyond their present position, leaving mines behind in the area now under Polisario control.[10] Polisario deployed its own mines in defense of these Moroccan advances. New mine usage diminished by 1991 when the cease-fire was signed. Air distributed munitions, specifically cluster bomb units, were also used during the conflict. The high rate of failure of these munitions has left extensive areas contaminated with unexploded ordnance (UXO), in essence de facto AP mines.

The Landmine Problem

While Western Sahara is heavily mine-affected, the exact dimensions of the problem in terms of number of mines, area contaminated and socio-economic impact are still unknown. Continued delays in a final settlement between the two warring parties have hindered efforts to gauge and address the problem.

Estimates on the number of mines in Western Sahara range from 200,000 by the US Department of State to ten million.[11] The exact number and distribution of explosive remnants in the territory is not known, making the determination of resources needed to address the problem a matter of guess work. A list of antitank and antipersonnel mines confirmed by MINURSO and Polisario to exist in the territory includes the following: [12]

Former Soviet Union
TM-57, TM-64
POMZ-2, POMZ-2M, PMD-6, PMD-6M, MON 50, OZM 3,

DM 31
MATS/2, VS 1.6, VS 2.2, VS 3..3, VS HCT 2, VS HCT 4, SB 81, SB 81 AR
VS 50,VS MK2,Valmara 69, TS 50, SB 33, SB 33 AR,

EM 20
MI AP MP M 51, MI AP ID 51, MI AP DV 59, MI AP DV M 61, MI AP DV M 63 PIQ
NR 141, NR 201, PRB M3,
PRB M35, PRB 409, NR 413, NR 442

PP MI SK, T 78, T 79, U 1 BOUND, U 1 STAKE, U 1 WOOD, U 1 DIR FRAG
M 15, M 19, M6 A2
M 16 A1, M 2 A4, M 18 A1 (Claymore), BLU 61/63 (Cluster bomb units)
Former Czechoslovakia

The Berm: The area of the Berm is known to be the most heavily mined area in the territory. A UN report quotes an un-named Moroccan military official that between one and two million mines could have been planted in defense of the Berm.[13] Usually the minefields extend for 100 meters. They are principally antitank mines with antipersonnel mines closer to the Berm. Polisario reports that mines along the Berm are sometimes booby-trapped or reinforced, sometimes with LP gas bottles.[14] MINURSO enforces a 5 kilometer Buffer Zone east of the Berm, which has been declared off-limits to all parties and civilians. The area of danger is thought to extend up to 10 kilometers to the east of the Berm in some areas.

Moroccan held territory: The MINURSO report states that Moroccan forces have removed most of the useless minefields to the west of the berm. Remaining minefields have been reported to MINURSO and sometimes marked with barbed wire or stones. However, individual Team Site reports note that Moroccan forces are not always sure of mines and advise staying to known tracks.[15] Team Site reports also state that Moroccan forces conduct clearance in areas after mine accidents have taken place. The MINURSO report also notes the problems encountered by the Royal Moroccan Army with old Polisario minefields left as they were retreating, especially in the southern sector of the Moroccan controlled territory. Portions of previous Berm sections that now lie behind the present divider are also regarded as suspect areas by MINURSO Team Site members.

MINURSO Team Sites keep a record of mine accidents in their sector and those reports are compiled at MINURSO's Mine Action Cell in Layounne. The reports marked on a map show the greatest percentage of accidents have occurred in the Polisario held territory. Some Polisario military officials claim the actual number of accidents in the Moroccan held territory far out paces accidents in the Polisario held territory, but that it is not in Morocco's best interest to publicize mine accidents, especially those involving Saharawis.[16] The MINURSO reports are not assumed to be comprehensive due to the reliance on local authorities for reporting and the vastness of the territory.

Polisario held territory: A Polisario Defense official reports that it has maps of contaminated areas east of the berm exist, but the detail and accuracy of these maps is unknown. Polisario authorities are thought to know the location of mined areas, though its knowledge is not comprehensive. Polisario military in the field admit they are unsure of the placement of Moroccan and Mauritanian minefields. The location of UXO, which is distributed throughout former battle zones, is also a matter of speculation. Despite the existence of mine maps by either side, the desert conditions of sand, wind and occasional heavy rain make mine shifting a constant phenomena. Likewise, the number of mine victims is unknown and their access to emergency services, especially in remote areas, is limited to military medical facilities. All serious injuries would require evacuation to the Polisario center south of Tindouf, Algeria. During a recent visit inside the Polisario held territory, accidents were discussed with military and civilians and it appears that camels are the most common victim of mines and UXOs as they graze for food.

Mine Awareness

In April 1998, Norwegian People's Aid (NPA) began the first mine awareness project for Saharawis in the refugee camps south of Tindouf, Algeria. The project was scheduled to run through March 1999 and provide awareness training to the over 100,000 refugees, mostly women and children. There are efforts underway to extend the project in the camps and expand into Mauritania and the Territory where no mine awareness is currently available.

The mine awareness project has teams consisting of six members each in the four major refugee camps, Aauin, Awserd, Smara and Dahkla as well as a smaller camp based at the 27th of February women's training school. The project employs two expatriate advisors and around fifty local staff as Team Leaders, instructors and administration. The project's curriculum centers on mine, UXO and danger area recognition, proper behavior to avoid accidents and response to mine accidents. To date, the NPA project has provided at least one-hour of training to over 30,000 Saharawi refugees. A theater group was recently formed to begin work with children.

Mine Clearance

To date, some clearance has been conducted by militaries from both sides though it only totals a small percentage of the problem. Moroccan forces are thought to have lifted most of their "non-essential" minefields, though no information is given on the number or area cleared.[17] In late 1997 and early 1998, the United Nations approached Sweden for a demining capacity for the MINURSO mission. The Swedish Demining Unit (SDU) arrived in Layounne in May 1998. Although deployed from May until October 1998, the Unit was only operational for 2 ½ months stemming from problems with Moroccan authorities allowing the import of essential equipment.[18] The SDU concentrated its efforts on areas for establishing or extending MINURSO Team Sites. Of the limited areas it cleared, the SDU destroyed 534 UXOs and only two antitank mines. The Unit did not report any antipersonnel mines. Because of the short period of operation, many of the MINURSO and UNHCR demining requests were left unfinished, including areas of the repatriation route. In its final report, the SDU noted that of the tasks it was assigned, there remains four months work for an EOD team and the need for a permanent EOD capacity for the life of the UN mission.

Part of the Swedish contingent were officers located in Laayoune at the Mine Action Cell. The Cell has the responsibility of all mine related matters concerning the MINURSO mission. After the departure of the Swedish officers, the MAC was handed over to Pakistani engineers who continue to work in the Cell. However, with the departure of the SDU, MINURSO is left with no demining capacity.

Presently, there is a cooperative relationship between Polisario 3rd Regional Command in Mijek and MINURSO Mijek Team Site in identifying and marking danger areas along MINURSO patrol routes. The marking system uses red painted stones to indicate danger. Throughout the Polisario held territory there is a lack of uniform marking. Depending on the area, stones, tires, sticks, blue sandbags and wooden signs may be used to indicate danger. Unfortunately, several of these markers are also used at times to indicate safe routes, opening the possibility for confusion. The NPA mine awareness project is attempting to initiate a uniform system with the Polisario military using red stones, which it will teach to refugees during its mine awareness training.

In the Secretary General's report dated 28 January 1999, he notes the assignment of the two Pakistani engineers to address mine and UXO related issues at the Mine Action Cell in Layounne.[19] The report also introduces the idea of a pilot demining project presented to both parties to start marking and destroying mines and UXO. The report notes that this pilot project would not be a substitute for the demining unit required by MINURSO to complete the remaining tasks. The pilot project idea was mentioned by MINURSO Team Site officials in various locations during a recent visit in February.

Under the current Global Landmine Survey initiative spearheaded by the Survey Working Group, a group of mine action related non-governmental organizations and the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), Western Sahara is a top priority for survey. Proposals are currently being developed to implement a Level 1 Survey to determine the extent and socio-economic impact of mines and UXO in Western Sahara. An Advance Mission visited the Polisario government south of Tindouf, Algeria and into the Polisario held territory to assess the feasibility of a Level 1 Survey in the Territory. Level 1 Surveys are scheduled to take approximately one year to complete and will provide relevant information on the extent and the impact of explosive remnants for policy makers and project implementers to determine follow on Level 2 Survey and clearance requirements.

Landmine Casualties

From the MINURSO mine accident reports and interviews with military and civilians in the Polisario held territory, mine accidents are occurring, though not in large numbers. This is partially a function of the small population that inhabits the territory. The return of tens of thousands of refugees will increase the number of accidents. Another possible reason for the low number of accidents is the enforcement by MINURSO of the five kilometer buffer zone where the greatest concentration of danger exists.

The Polisario government has no systematic statistics on the number of people injured by mines.[20] The NPA mine awareness teams interviewed thirty-seven mine and UXO victims during August 1998. These interviews represent only a sample of the survivors living in the camps. The most often mentioned problem by survivors was the lack of prosthetics. Twenty-six of those interviewed were injured during military operations and of those seven were attempting to remove mines. The other civilian injuries occurred during travel, herding or had picked up UXO. Six of those interviewed were under the age of seventeen when they were injured.

Landmine Survivor Assistance

Medical facilities in the Polisario held territory are very limited. Each of the six military regions only has facilities at its headquarters to treat injuries. Surgical care is only available in the refugee camps in Algeria, some six to thirty hours away or more depending on where the accident occurs and what transportation can be obtained. On some occasions, MINURSO has provided assistance in treating and transporting mine victims. In preparation for repatriation, Polisario has constructed two hospitals, one in Tifiriti in the north and the other in Mijek in the south. However, these facilities are not yet complete and require equipment and staffing.

In the camps, there are two hospitals. The National Hospital is staffed with Cuban and Saharawi doctors and has some facilities to treat seriously wounded patients. The other is the military hospital where the majority of mine accident patients are treated.

Rehabilitation services are almost non-existent. There is the Military Rehabilitation and Education Center located in the administrative center of the camps. The center has patients with a variety of injuries, almost all are former military. Some of the men have their families with them. The director listed the three main challenges facing the center as lack of treatment for curable cases, care for paraplegics and prosthetics for amputees. He also mentioned that there is a lack of quality food necessary for recuperation. The Director, himself, walks on an above knee prosthetic device that is twelve years old. Like others with prosthetics, he received care outside the camps in Algeria or Spain. Few amputees stay at the center as the level of personal care they receive at home with their families in the camps is better. Due to a lack of resources, the center is severely limited in medicines and rehabilitation it can offer. The physiotherapy room consists of only a padded table, an exercise bicycle and a rowing machine. In addition to medical services, the school offers basic courses, as well as some computer instruction, for the patients, most of who did not have the opportunity to receive education during their military service.

Recently the Minister of Health signed a cooperative agreement with a group of Spanish NGOs to provide aid including care for children mine survivors.[21] The plan will bring Spanish physicians to the camps to identify patients and then fly the children to Spain to receive treatment.


[1]UNHCR Tindouf Road Reconnaissance Mission Report, August 1998.

[2]Landmine Monitor interview with Polisario Minister for Special Affairs Mohamed Sidati, Brussels, 22 February 1999.

[3]Fronte POLISARIO. “Mines Antipersonnales,” Sahara Libre - RASD Periodique national d’Information, No. 1., 22 March 1999.


[5]Usher, Rod, "A Nation Lost in the Desert," Time, 1 February 1999. Vol. 153 No. 4, pp. 38-40.

[6]Landmine Monitor interview with Polisario 1st Regional Command (Dougaj), 4 February 1999.

[7]Landmine Monitor interview with Saharawi Military Engineers, June 1998.

[8]MINURSO, “Western Sahara: Updated Mine Situation,” February 1998.

[9]Landmine Monitor interview with Polisario Military Engineers, June 1998.

[10]Landmine Monitor interviews with Polisario Regional Commands, February 1999.

[11]U.S. Department of State, Hidden Killers: The Global Landmine Crisis, 1998, p. A-2; Norwegian People's Aid, Western Sahara web page, August 1998. See www.npaid.no.

[12]MINURSO, “Western Sahara: Updated Mine Situation,” February 1998.

[13]MINURSO, “Western Sahara: Updated Mine Situation,” February 1998.

[14] Landmine Monitor interview with Polisario Regional Commands, February 1999.

[15]“UXO's / Minefields SSC MAB G2 Briefing,” MINURSO Mine Action Cell, Layounne.

[16]Landmine Monitor interview with Polisario Regional Commands, February 1999.

[17]MINURSO, “Western Sahara: Updated Mine Situation,” February 1998.

[18]“Report on SDU and MAC Activities May-Nov 1998,” MINURSO Interoffice Memorandum, 10 November 1998.

[19]Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation Concerning Western Sahara, 28 January 1999. See www.un.org/Docs/sc/reports/1999/s199988.htm. S/1999/88.

[20]Landmine Monitor interview with Polisario Minister of Health Bachir Seyd. Smara Refugee Camp, 30 January 1999.

[21]Landmine Monitor interview with Polisario Minister of Health Bachir Seyd. Smara Refugee Camp, 30 January 1999.