Last Moroccan POWs freed by Western Sahara guerillas

After more than 20 years in captivity, 404 prisoners of war have returned home to Morocco, the last of more than 2,400 freed by Western Sahara’s Polisario Front independence movement. Two privately chartered planes carrying the prisoners, some of them more than 60 years old, landed in the southern city of Agadir. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said the prisoners’ release in Tindouf, southwest Algeria, followed US 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 players in a region where the West seeks stability and cooperation against Islamic militants.

Statements by Morocco and the Polisario Front indicated that years of diplomatic mediation have not ended their mutual hostility. Rabat thanked the US 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. Rabat offered no words of thanks to either the Polisario Front or Algeria. “Their liberation is a belated fulfilment of an international obligation which has been demanded several times by the UN Security Council, yet it was ignored.”

Polisario countered that Morocco’s continued occupation of the territory violates international law. “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.

In New York, new US ambassador to the UN John Bolton thanked both Algeria and Morocco for bringing about the release, the last of 15 such handovers. US Sen. Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, oversaw the prisoner release in Algeria and met President Abdelaziz Bouteflika before flying to Morocco later in the day.

Lugar called the release “a constructive step for peace and stability in North Africa,” adding that 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 said. (Reuters, Aug. 18)

See our last post on Western Sahara.