- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 16, 2005

RABAT, Morocco — Seated under the shade of a green oak tree in his back yard, Ali Najab cannot stop thinking about the desert.

The separatist Polisario Front is still holding 408 of his Moroccan countrymen as prisoners in camps near the Algerian border town of Tindouf.

The prisoners, held on violations of international law, are the aging remains of one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts over the fate of the barren Western Sahara territory. They are reported to be victims of torture, forced labor and sundry human rights abuses more than 14 years after the United Nations brokered a cease-fire.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has called these men the “world’s oldest prisoners of war.” Capt. Najab, whose F-5 jet was shot down during a reconnaissance mission the night of Sept. 10, 1978, was trapped in that same hot and forgotten corner of the Sahara for a quarter-century.

For years, his family did not know whether he was dead or alive. His daughter grew up without a father, and he missed the birth of his granddaughter. Since coming home, he has received little, if any, acknowledgment of his sacrifice from the military.

Still, the retired air force captain, 62, considers himself “one of the lucky ones.” He was released three years ago, thanks to stepped-up international pressure on the Polisario and an Algerian government, he says, that dictates its agenda from the shadows.

“We prisoners don’t call it Polisario,” he said, “We call it the ‘Algesario.’”

Capt. Najab said the Polisario and the concept of an independent Western Sahara are fabrications left over from the Cold War. Algeria, under the aegis of the Soviet Union, fought to solidify its African sphere of influence by dividing Morocco.

He noted that the territory known as Western Sahara is a historic part of the Moroccan kingdom and that many top Polisario officials, including leader in exile Mohamed Abdelaziz and former Prime Minister Mohamed Lamin Ahmed, are Moroccan by birth.

The Polisario Front says it represents the Sahrawi tribe. These nomadic Saharans claim sovereignty over the 70,000-square-mile Western Sahara region that spans southwestern Morocco and western Algeria.

About 160,000 Sahrawis reportedly live in deplorable camps around Tindouf awaiting a U.N.-endorsed referendum.

Despite International Court of Justice recognition of Sahrawi claims to the territory, Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1975 after colonial Spain withdrew. The Polisario formed and took up arms in 1976, sparking a low-intensity guerrilla war that lasted until U.N. intervention in 1991. A stalemate has endured.

Capt. Najab said politics should not matter when hundreds of men languish in silence.

“The Polisario has never respected Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions: Prisoners must be released as soon as a cease-fire is in place,” he told The Washington Times at his home in Rabat. “The prisoners are a humanitarian problem that must be disassociated from politics.”

Although Morocco claims to have released all POWs seized during the fighting, Mr. Abdelaziz says it has yet to account for 150 missing Polisario troops. The Polisario, he said, has released about 1,700 POWs and will free the remaining prisoners once Rabat follows through on promises to hold a sovereignty referendum.

Mr. Abdelaziz said the living conditions of the Moroccan POWs have been identical to those of the soldiers in his army. Capt. Najab bristled at the claim.

“Everything that has been constructed at Tindouf has been done by Moroccan prisoners who live like slaves at the end of a whip,” the U.S.- and French-trained airman said.

“These are not exaggerations; these are things I have seen with my own eyes.”

With deep crow’s-feet at his eyes suggesting years of harsh exposure, Capt. Najab described his detention.

Aside from forced labor each day in temperatures that often soared well above 100 degrees, he said, he and his fellow POWs were tortured, starved and coerced into giving their blood to enemy hospitals.

If they did not provide the right answers to visiting journalists or foreign delegations, or during radio interviews where they had to relay false propaganda, they were “beaten day and night” and thrown into cramped mud brick cells, he said.

Capt. Najab recalled the attempted escape and capture of a Moroccan pilot.

“They brought him for what they called a ‘trial’ and suspended him naked and beat him with anything they could find,” he said. “He lost consciousness and they threw him in a corner. He was dead. Eight months later, when some Algerians intervened, the pilot was found in a container completely decomposed.”

In another instance, Capt. Najab said, a POW had refused to reveal who had stolen some food. A soldier doused the man with gas and said, “Talk or I’ll burn you” as he lighted a cigarette.

When the prisoner again refused, the soldier dropped the match and the “guy went up in flames right in front of us.” The prisoner never spoke again, he said.

“There are endless examples like this,” he said. “I’ve tried to release these memories to try to understand, and I’ve arrived at the conclusion that these people have no respect for human beings — none.”

An April 2003 report by the Paris-based rights group France Liberte gathered “many testimonies on torture and summary executions,” citing instances in which POWs were burned alive, electrocuted, beaten to death and castrated.

Capt. Najab said France Liberte had been one of the Polisario’s chief supporters for years, but cut ties with the movement once they understood the realities on the ground.

Reports of abuse have been corroborated by Amnesty International, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the U.N. Security Council. All have demanded that the Polisario liberate POWs in compliance with the Geneva Conventions.

The 15-member U.N. body issued its fourth resolution in April, “urging the Polisario Front to release without delay all remaining prisoners of war.”

Although it does not recognize Sahrawi sovereignty, the U.N. Mission in Western Sahara has spent more than $600 million on peacekeeping efforts in the region.

Rabat rejected the most recent plan brought to the table: a 2003 compromise resolution drawn up by former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III that proposed making the phosphate-rich region — also thought to have offshore oil deposits — a semiautonomous part of Morocco for five years, and then holding a referendum.

Polisario leaders in May threatened a “return to arms” unless a breakthrough is made by the end of this year.

Two weeks ago, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed veteran Dutch diplomat Peter Van Walsum as a new special envoy to get the peace process back on track. Mr. Baker left the post 13 months ago after seven fruitless years.

Morocco has been accused of being inflexible, but observers say the Polisario’s ill treatment of POWs undermines the credibility of the Sahrawi cause.

Capt. Najab and five other former prisoners visited Washington this spring to rouse the support of U.S. officials. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a retired Navy pilot held as a POW for more than five years in North Vietnam, stood beside the delegation to demand the immediate release of prisoners from what he called “a travesty of human rights.”

The State Department has said the Polisario is required to release the prisoners under international humanitarian law.

“Unless there the will exists from the strong countries like the United States, from its Congress … that can put serious pressure on the Polisario and Algeria, this will not come to an end, of that I am sure,” Capt. Najab said.

A Polisario representative in Algeria said July 16 that the front “has decided to release the remaining POWs without conditions,” but a Red Cross spokesman later denied that a release had been scheduled.

Capt. Najab has devoted the rest of his days to securing the freedom of the POWs with the same stubborn spirit that carried him through 25 years in bondage.

“I can say that I gave everything for my country, before the war, during the war and while in prison, and I continue to do so,” Mr. Najab said. “The Sahara is the cement of a unified Morocco. Whatever their points of view on politics are — left, center or right — on that issue [Moroccans] are one. We will go on for centuries if need be, and never give up. It is question of life and death for us.”

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