UNITED NATIONS MISSION FOR THE REFERENDUM IN WESTERN SAHARAOperation CEDILLA
MISSION DES NATIONS UNIES POUR UN REFERENDUM AU SAHARA OCCIDENTAL (MINURSO)
Australia: 5 September 1991 to 25 May 1994.
Strength: Total of 219 personnel consisting of 5 contingents of 45.
Area of Operations (AO): Western Sahara, south-west Algeria and Morocco.
Purpose: Since Spain's unilateral withdrawal from the Western Sahara territory in 1976, the Frente POLISARIO (POLISARIO Front), the politico-military organization who represent the Saharawi people, have fiercely resisted annexation by neighbouring Morocco. A guerrilla war continued until 1991 when the UN brokered a cease-fire. Following this, in September 1991, MINURSO was established to: monitor the ceasefire; monitor the confinement of Moroccan and POLISARIO Front troops to designated locations; ensure the release of all Western Saharan political prisoners or detainees; verify the reduction of Moroccan troops in the Territory; oversee the exchange of prisoners of war; implement the repatriation programme (UNHCR); identify and register qualified voters; and to organize and ensure a free and fair referendum and proclaim the results.
Australia provided the mission's 45-strong Force Communications Unit from 1991 until mid 1994. The Australian Contingent primarily provided combat net radio, messaging and higher command link communications from Force HQ in Laâyoune to each sector HQ and further to teamsite level within the sectors as required. In addition, the Contingent performed driving tasks including fuel tanker and flat-bed fuel (44 gal drums) and propane (canister) resupply to teamsites widely dispersed on both sides of the ‘berm’ - an approx 2,700 km-long defensive wall which stretches along the entire length of the disputed territory through Western Sahara and the southeastern portion of Morocco and separates the Moroccan-administered portion (west) from the area that is controlled by the POLISARIO Front (east).
History: Western Sahara, a Territory on the north-west coast of Africa bordered by Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria, was administered by Spain until 1976. The Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y de Río de Oro (POLISARIO Front) began in May 1973 as an insurgency (based in neighbouring Mauritania) against Spanish control of Western Sahara. After Spain withdrew and Morocco and Mauritania partitioned Western Sahara between themselves in 1976, the POLISARIO Front relocated to Algeria, which henceforth provided the organization with bases and military aid. Mauritania made peace with the POLISARIO Front in 1979, but Morocco then unilaterally annexed Mauritania’s portion of Western Sahara.
During the 1980s POLISARIO Front guerrillas, numbering some 15,000 motorized and well-armed troops, harassed and raided Moroccan outposts and defenses in Western Sahara. Morocco responded by constructing a berm, or earthen barrier, some 1,240 miles (2,000 km) long, which was completed by 1987. Although Algerian diplomatic support continued, military support was reduced during the 1990s.
A guerrilla war with the POLISARIO Front contesting Morocco's sovereignty ended in a 1991 UN-brokered cease-fire. Since then a UN-organized referendum on the territory's final status has been repeatedly postponed.
The UN since 2007 has sponsored intermittent talks between representatives of the Government of Morocco and the POLISARIO Front to negotiate the status of Western Sahara. Morocco has put forward an autonomy proposal for the territory, which would allow for some local administration while maintaining Moroccan sovereignty. The POLISARIO Front, with Algeria's support, demands a popular referendum that includes the option of independence.
The natural hazards synonymous with the Sahara have been compounded by the man-made hazards of an area that has been a battlefield for more than 80 years. The mine hazards, isolation and the exceptionally harsh conditions of the Sahara were a part of every day living on MINURSO.
Killed: 1 - On 21 June 1993, Army Doctor Major Susan Felsche, Royal Australian Army Medical Corps, was killed in a Medical Unit aircraft crash when the Pilatus Porter, in which she was a passenger, crashed on take-off at Awsard airfield, Southern Sector, Western Sahara. She was the first Australian female soldier to die in a multinational peacekeeping operation and the first Australian servicewoman to die in an overseas military operation since World War 2.
Veteran Entitlement Act (VEA) : Schedule 3; 5 September 1991 to 25 May 1994.
Service Type: Non-warlike.
Gazette: S298 of 21 Oct 91
Awards & Qualifying Periods:
- Australian Service Medal (ASM) with Clasp 'WEST SAHARA'. Posted - 30 days; Visitor / TDY - N/A.
- MINURSO Medal. Force assigned - 90 days.
ASM with Clasp