Since its constitution on May 20, 1973 the Saharawi Popular Liberation Army (SPLA) is the armed wing of the POLISARIO Front, and the champion of the Saharawi people’s armed struggle for liberation, independence, national sovereignty, territorial integrity and the embodiment of the continuation of the heroic traditions of the Sahrawi anticolonial resistance that never stopped since the 16-17 centuries.
Possessing a rich experience in the liberation war, the SPLA has a history of performing great deeds. It fought for years against Spanish colonialism, one of the most experienced in the world in the colonial wars, defeated the troops of UId Dadah forcing Mauritania to withdraw from the territory in 1979 and to sign a peace treaty with the Saharawi government, humiliated the Moroccan armed forces as army and inflicted embarrassing defeats to the elite of the Royal Army, which was and still is strongly supported by France, Occidental weapons and expertise.
The Saharawi liberation army started with a group of 17 fighters, who formed the armed branch of the then freshly constituted POLISARIO Front in May 1973. The first military action of this small group was against a small Spanish garrison in Janga region. This first operation was led by the Leader and Founder of Polisario Front, Martyr El Ouali Mustapha Sayed, and six of his companions, with a couple of old rifles. The group succeeded to take the post, seize new weapons and vehicles whose subsequent use against the Spanish colonial army, multiplying their losses. The Spanish army with all its sophisticated and better equipped troops will taste many other defeats by the SPLA in the memorable operations in the regions of Agyaiyimat, TIFARITI , Guelta Zemmour, Hassi Maatala etc…
The Spanish shameful withdrawal from the Saharawi territory was followed by the entry of new foreign forces of aggression in the Western Sahara and, therefore, a new test for the then two years old Sahrawi army of resistance that counted in 1975 on few hundreds fighters amongst its ranks most of which young and inexperienced.
The Spanish colonial power paved the way to the invasion of thousands of Moroccan troops from the North, and Mauritanian ones from the South, putting the Saharawi army between cross-fires. These new occupation forces spread around the territory looting and destroying cities and sowing terror among the defenseless population, killing and destroying everything.
The SPLA task was thus double, on the one hand the few hundreds poorly equipped fighters had to face the two invading armies to slow the invasion, but at the same time they had most of all to save the lives of tens of thousands of elderly, women and children forced into exodus because of the massacres committed in North-East of Western Sahara by the Moroccan King’s troops.
The Saharawi army first settled refugee camps in the Eastern regions of Western Sahara in Tifariti and Um Dreiga but the Moroccan Royal Air Forces raided these camps, bombarding them with napalm and White Phosphorus, forcing them to run further to the East in the Algerian territory near Tindouf, where Algeria finally gave them refuge in what will be from then on known as the Saharawi Refugee camps near Tindouf.
Once the Saharawi army secured Saharawi civilians, the resistance developed and progressed in terrible and fierce battles against the two invading armies. The Saharawi fighters’ knowledge of the land, determination to die for their country and feelings of anger and deception because of the Spanish betrayal, and neighbours’ aggression, made of the Saharawi army one of the most successful guerrillas worldwide.
A unique guerrilla war will develop, indeed, on an area of over one million square kilometers, mostly desert land.. This resistance changed what were to be for Hassan II a “cakewalk” and a “police operation” into a walk in hell for the aggressing troops. This great resistance offensive operation will bear the name of Martyr El Ouali Mustapha Sayed, POLISARIO Front’s young leader fallen in battle on June 9, 1976.
From late 1975 to 1978, the SPLA defeated UId Dadah’s army, which was strongly backed by Moroccan and french contingents following a fierce offensive, marked by famous battles in La Guera , Auserd , Aguerguer , Argub , Gleibat Legleia ( SADR ) , Zouerat , Chum Ain Bentili , Fdirik , Nouakhot , Tiyigya , Tichitt , Bascnu , Ouadane , Chenguiti , Atar ( Mauritania), the complete blockage of the Mauritanian mining train (Iron) which paralyzed the major economic activity in the country. The Saharawi army also faced direct military intervention of French Air forces in 1977 and 1978.
The Moroccan royal forces lost more than 20.000 soldiers, according to its official sources, though the losses were bigger than that probably. The Saharawi army was so successful in its attacks against the Moroccan bases and moving forces, to the point that the seized weapons and ammunition was the main source of military supplies for the Saharawi fighters. The SPLA also captured some 4000 Moroccan prisoners of war, who will be released in groups after the cease-fire starting from the nineties, though the Moroccan government refused to recuperate them for years until some international actors put pressures on Morocco to allow their release via the coordination with the Red Cross and friendly countries.
Mauritania’s withdrawal from the war in 1979 will entails the intensification of the war against the Moroccan aggressor. A new stage of the Saharawi Military offensive was started, and was given the name of the late Algerian president, Hauari Boumedien. On of the most famous battles will be Lemsayel operation, which followed the operations of Tantan, Lebuerat, Assa, Aka (in the South of Morocco), Bir Enzaran, Bu-cra, Smara, Mahbes, Laayoune, Uad Taichet (SADR)… forcing the Royal army to change its tactics and to call for support of its allies in the West and in the Arab World.
The SPLA was so successful in its operations against the Moroccan army that the Western Medias, for example, labeled the operation of Lebuerat, which took place in the southern Morocco in August 1979, as “the Biem Diem Phu of Western Sahara War” or “the Tanks Cemetery”. This operation lasted for ten consecutive days in a battle of positions in which the main Moroccan army troops were completely trapped and sealed by the Saharawi offensive causing them huge material losses especially in Tanks. In this operation more than 562 Moroccan soldiers were killed, 45 tanks and 57 armored vehicles destroyed, while 125 cars, 495 artillery pieces and 105 tons of ammunition were seized by the Saharawi army in addition to 98 Moroccan prisoners of war, including officers. On the other side, the Saharawi army succeeded to release and save 166 Saharawi citizens.
The strategy of the walls
The successive success of the Saharawi army in other similar operations between 78 and 81, forced the staff of the King to adopt a new strategy following the advices of Western military experts and allies.
In order to keep the Northwest region of the SADR under its occupation, Morocco deployed all its army, supported with the billions of some Arab countries and the technical support of the West, to construct a military “defensive” wall (a 2400 km sand embankment surrounded by barbed wire, minefields and regiments stationed in each two or three kilometers parting western Sahara from North to South). The maneuver took Morocco 7 years to finish it because of the Saharawi attacks, and the losses in men and equipment was impossible to count. But, still the Moroccan army was trapped and forced to finish what it started.
The myth of the defensive “wall” collapses in front of the repeated blows
Despite the millions of dollars spent by Morocco on the defensive machinery, radars, and embankments, the SPLA demonstrated an extraordinary ability to adapt to the challenges and gave the resounding answer in October 1981 by inflicting a strong defeat to the enemy in the region of Guelta Zemmur where a Moroccan regiment of 2,400 troops was completely annihilated, their arsenals captured and the myth of the “protective” and unbreakable wall collapsed.
The 120,000 Moroccan troops entrenched in the wall was completely demoralized, it was trapped in its own strategy of defense, unable to choose when or where the next battle is taking place, and forced to guard a long 2400 Km, which is the length of the wall.
The Saharawi army, though small in number (around 20.000 to 30.000 fighters) is among the strongest armies in desert wars. It acquired field experiences in guerrilla war, but also in conventional war, and developed successful strategies of attacks against military walls. Many of the famous Battles won by the Saharawi army are taught in Military academies around the world.