- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2005

In May, we brought readers’ attention to the plight of 408 Moroccan POWs being held by the Polisario Front in Western Sahara. Many of the prisoners have been incarcerated for more than two decades, which makes them the longest-serving POWs in the world. Last month, the head of the Polisario, Mohammed Abdelaziz, announced that his group would release all the Moroccans “as soon as possible,” according to France’s Le Monde newspaper. “We are going to inform the International Committee of the Red Cross and work with them on the technical logistics of their liberation,” Mr. Abdelaziz said. It’s been three weeks since Mr. Abdelaziz’s pledge and zero POWs have been set free.

In fact, a spokeswoman for the ICRC told the Moroccan Times on July 28 that the ICRC has had “no official information concerning the probable release of Moroccan prisoners held by the Polisario Front.” She added, “The news that the ICRC is currently in Tindouf [Algeria] to arrange the release of the remaining prisoners is not correct.”

Since the United Nations negotiated a ceasefire between Morocco and the Algerian-back Polisario Front in 1991, this reneging on promises has been a recurrent theme. The Polisario Front has used the Moroccan POWs, captured during the devastating 1976-91 war, as political leverage to solicit political compromises from Morocco and aid from non-governmental organizations. Meanwhile, the conditions of the POWs remains one of the worst violations of human rights in the world. A 2003 report from the human-rights group France Libertes documents examples of extreme torture, slave labor and barbarous forms of executions, such as burning prisoners alive. The Polisario Front counters that Morocco is also detaining Polisario POWs, though there is no evidence for this.

The political disputes between Morocco, which claims sovereignty over Western Sahara, and the Polisario, which seeks independence, cannot be resolved until all POWs are released. Anything less than full liberation constitutes a hostage situation in which Morocco is justified in its refusal to negotiate.

While Sen. John McCain has called on Mr. Abdelaziz to release all prisoners, the United States should be doing more. Pressure should be placed on Algeria, which hosts the Polisario Front. There’s reason to believe that if Algeria forces the issue, then the Polisario would have little choice but to comply.

The United States, of course, should not become embroiled in a regional dispute. Mr. Abdelaziz’s announcement, however, offers hope that with a little more international pressure he might be persuaded to end this tragic situation. At the very least, the United States should make clear that the Polisario will never get what it wants as long as it holds 408 human beings in bondage.

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