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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 9:20 EDT

Morocco welcomes last POWs from Polisario camps

August 18, 2005

By Souhail Karam

RABAT (Reuters) – Morocco welcomed home 404 prisoners of
war on Thursday, the last of more than 2,400 to be freed after
being held by Western Sahara’s exiled Polisario Front
independence movement, some for more than two decades.

Two privately chartered planes carrying the prisoners, some
of them more than 60 years old, landed in the southern city of
Agadir, about 600 km (375 miles) from the Moroccan capital.

State television showed the men wearing baseball caps and
sports clothes and carrying sports bags rushing to buses after
landing. Some knelt in prayer as soon as they left the plane.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said
the prisoners’ release in Tindouf, southwest Algeria, followed
U.S. mediation. They were captured by the Polisario in the
guerrilla war sparked by Rabat’s 1975 annexation of the desert
territory.

The soldiers’ return home could ease tension between
Morocco and the Polisario’s main backer Algeria, major nations
in a region where the West wants stability because of fears it
could be a source of Islamic militancy.

The prisoners were taken to a military base in Agadir for
medical checks before meeting their families. “I just want to
see my family well,” one of them told state television.

Like previous prisoner handovers, it was a relatively
low-key affair. “There is no major plan for their arrival,”
said one official source shortly before the planes landed.

The ICRC has already repatriated more than 2,000 Moroccan
troops captured by the Polisario. A U.N.-brokered ceasefire in
1991 ended the armed conflict over Western Sahara, but the
dispute over its future rumbled on.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan welcomed the release and
hoped it would “serve to foster better relations between the
parties and contribute to overcoming the present political
impasse,” his chief spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said.

“VIOLATION OF INTERNATIONAL LAW”

Statements by Morocco and the Polisario Front showed that
years of diplomatic mediation have not ended their mutual
hostility.

Rabat thanked the U.S. administration for helping end the
“ordeal endured by hundreds of prisoners” who had been held “in
a blatant violation of international law” after the end of the
armed conflict in 1991.

Neither the Polisario Front nor Algeria were to be thanked
for the move, it said. “Their liberation is a belated
fulfilment of an international obligation which has been
demanded several times by the U.N. Security Council, yet it was
ignored.”

Polisario said the release aimed to create an atmosphere
helpful to efforts by a newly appointed U.N. envoy to solve the
nearly 30-year-old tussle over the desert territory, mostly
held by Morocco but claimed by the Algeria-backed Front.

“More efforts are needed to bring Morocco to comply with
international law and allow the people of the Western Sahara to
exercise its legitimate and inalienable right to
self-determination,” Polisario chief Mohamed Abdelaziz said.

Morocco, claiming centuries-old historic rights over the
desert territory, says it is an artificial dispute that feeds
oil-rich Algeria’s hope of gaining access to the Atlantic
coast.

Morocco has spent billions of dollars developing the
northwest African territory of 260,000 people since annexing it
after former colonial power Spain withdrew in 1975.

But it has refused to allow a vote on self-determination
despite the promise of one in the U.N.-brokered ceasefire.

The Western Sahara dispute has hampered three decades of
efforts to improve strained ties between Algeria and Morocco.

In New York, John Bolton, the new U.S. ambassador to the
United Nations, thanked Algeria and Morocco for their part in
the release, the last of 15 such handovers.

U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee, oversaw the prisoner release in Algeria on
behalf of President George W. Bush and met President Abdelaziz
Bouteflika before flying to Morocco later in the day.

The release was “a constructive step for peace and
stability in North Africa …” Lugar said in a statement.
Washington “strongly supports an Algerian-Moroccan
rapprochement and a peaceful political solution to the question
of the Western Sahara … that honours the principle of
self-determination.”

“It is vital that the United States remain engaged in North
Africa and the wider Arab world so that we can work with
friends to expand opportunities for democracy, economic
development and peace,” he added.