ICRC initiates contact with Polisario on release of prisoners

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has initiated contact with the Polisario Front and the Moroccan government to offer its services for the repatriation of 243 Moroccan prisoners released by Polisario last week.

"Before they are repatriated we will interview them in private to ascertain that they would like to be repatriated," Florian Westphal, ICRC's spokesman told IRIN on Monday. This he said was in line with the principle of the international law that prisoners should be repatriated according to their free will.

"For humanitarian reasons the prisoners should be released and be repatriated because the issue of the prisoners is purely humanitarian and should be considered separately from the political process," Westphal added.

On 15 August, the Polisario Front - the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro - announced it would release 243 of Moroccan detainees in Tindouf, southwestern Algeria.

"This release marks the second one in less than six months and came in response to a demand by the Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and after the adoption of resolution 1495 adopted by the UN Security Council," Polisario said in a news release. So far, 1,343 prisoners had been released to date, it said.

Polisario condemned the continued detention of the Sahrawi prisoners in Morocco, calling on Morocco to respect international law in resolving the conflict so that Sahrawis could conform their desire in conformity with the UN peace plan.

The Moroccan government on Friday also put out a statement saying it had taken note of announcement lauding the return of these 243 nationals to their country and to their families.

It however added: "The government of His Majesty the King would like to recall that the detainees of Tindouf are the longest serving in the would. They have been living for 25 years in inhumane tragic conditions that the ICRC decried several times".

The conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front broke out in 1975 when Morocco annexed the territory following Spain's withdrawal from it. While Morocco claims sovereignty over the northwest African territory, Polisario wants self-determination for its people.

Early this month, Morocco rejected a new plan UN plan to find a political solution to the 27-year-old conflict. The plan provides for a referendum in four to five years time. This would offer the inhabitants of Western Sahara the choice between independence, autonomy within Morocco or complete integration with Morocco.

The plan was accepted by Polisario and approved by the UN Security Council last month.

Western Sahara, a desert territory south of Morocco's official border, was annexed by Morocco in 1976 after Spain withdrew its colonial administration, but the Algeria-based Polisario guerrilla movement has been fighting since then for it to become an independent state.