- The Washington Times - Friday, August 19, 2005

AGADIR, Morocco — Hundreds of Moroccan soldiers held for decades in desert prisoner-of-war camps began returning home yesterday, hours after being freed by Western Sahara guerrillas in a U.S.-mediated deal.

The first of two U.S. military-chartered airplanes landed with 404 former prisoners at Agadir, a coastal city in southern Morocco. Some of the men had been held for up to 20 years by the Polisario Front at camps in southwestern Algeria.

A second plane filled with POWs was expected later yesterday.

The Polisario Front fought Morocco for years seeking independence of the mineral-rich Western Sahara region. The United States expressed hope that the release of the POWs would provide momentum for a settlement of the three-decade-long dispute.

The POWs were being flown home under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross after a transfer ceremony at the Polisario base in Tindouf that was overseen by U.S. Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Mr. Lugar, who was asked to come to the region by President Bush, arrived in Agadir shortly before the first POW aircraft touched down.

The White House said the prisoner release was “the product of quiet and intense diplomatic efforts among the United States, Morocco and Algeria.”

A former fighter pilot who was freed in 2003 after spending 25 years, two months and 25 days as a Polisario prisoner said he was “enormously happy.”

“I spent 17 years without contact with my family. I got to write my first letter to my child in 1995. We were allowed two letters of 11 lines each per year. It was terrible,” Mohamed Belkadi said in Rabat, Morocco’s capital.

The Polisario Front hoped that releasing the last of the more than 2,000 prisoners it once held would pressure Morocco to release or account for Polisario POWs and missing civilians and to allow a referendum on Western Sahara’s future.

“They are in the hot seat,” a Polisario representative, Mohamed Beissat, said. “We are challenging them to free our political detainees, our POWs, and to say a word about our disappeared people.”

After Morocco annexed the vast mineral-rich territory once colonized by Spain, Polisario Front rebels based in camps in southern Algeria waged a desert war to gain the territory’s independence. The fighting ended in 1991 with a U.N.-negotiated cease-fire that called for a referendum on the region’s future.

The release could increase pressure to allow the referendum, which has never been organized, in large part because Morocco and the Polisario failed to agree on who could be counted as voters.

Morocco’s late King Hassan II flooded the Western Sahara with Moroccans after Spain ended its colonization in 1975, and about 200,000 Saharawis, as the people of the region are known, fled into Algeria.

Spain’s withdrawal in 1976 left the Western Sahara divided between Morocco and Mauritania and sparked the independent-minded Polisario to rise in an effort to create a Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic in the former Spanish Sahara.

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