- The Washington Times - Friday, October 7, 2005

Lakbir Khamrich and Abdelaziz El Hamzaoui say they have come to Washington to give thanks and to demand justice.

The two men were part of a contingent of 404 Moroccan soldiers freed August 18 after two decades in a prisoner-of-war camp in the Algerian town of Tindouf, a camp run by the rebel Polisario Front. Morocco has been fighting a hot-and-cold civil war with the Algerian-backed Polisario since the mid-1970s for control of the country’s vast Western Sahara region.

“We would not be free today without the help of the United States. We know that,” said Mr. Khamrich, who was a 20-year-old corporal when captured in a Polisario raid in 1987. “But we still want U.S. help to see that our torturers are brought to justice.”

In an interview Wednesday, Mr. Hamzaoui described brutal conditions in the camp, a life of meager rations, searing heat and bitter cold, tiny cells and forced construction labor. International humanitarian aid meant for the prisoners was routinely diverted and sold by Polisario officials, he claimed, and POWs were beaten with electric cables if they tried to escape or complained to visiting Red Cross officials and journalists.

“There is a suffering I carry within me that no amount of time can heal,” he said, speaking through a translator in a mixture of Arabic and French.

Mr. Hamzaoui said the shock of freedom — the noise of cars, the bright lights, the crush of people — has been so intense that, six weeks after his release, he still prefers sleeping through the day and going out only late at night.

The two men, who were among the world’s longest-held POWs at the time of their release, met with National Security Council officials Wednesday to describe their treatment, presenting a letter to President Bush demanding an international court prosecute their jailers.

U.S. mediation proved critical in the release of the last of some 2,000 Moroccan prisoners held by the Polisario, in a 30-year-old dispute that has bitterly divided two key American allies in North Africa.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, headed a delegation that monitored the August transfer of the last 404 prisoners from Tindouf to Rabat, Morocco.

The tangled conflict over Western Sahara dates back to 1975, when Morocco annexed the desert territory after Spain’s withdrawal. The Polisario Front, saying it represented the nomadic Saharan people who settled the region, launched a guerrilla war against Morocco with Algerian support.

The United Nations brokered a cease-fire in 1991, but 14 years of diplomacy, including a lengthy mediation effort by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, have so far failed to produce a lasting political settlement.

Longtime Polisario Front leader Muhammad Abdul Aziz said the recent prisoner release was a “good-will gesture” designed to clear the way for a popular referendum in the disputed territory over its ultimate fate. Rabat insists it will never cede sovereignty over the region.

Mr. Khamrich and Mr. Hamzaoui said they were soldiers, not politicians, and could not say how the territorial dispute should be resolved.

“But to my own mind, I do know that the people who treated us like animals should first be forced to admit to what they did,” Mr. Khamrich said.

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