ICRC prepares to repatriate more Moroccan prisoners

Officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have travelled to Tindouf in western Algeria to repatriate a new batch of prisoners of war released by the Polisario movement, an ICRC official said on Friday.

Muhammad Abdulaziz, the secretary general of Polisario, which is fighting for the independence of the Western Sahara said on Thursday that his movement would release a further 300 Moroccan prisoners of war starting Friday.

"We know there are people released and that our officers on the ground have travelled to Tindouf, in Algeria to meet the released persons," an ICRC official told IRIN by telephone from Geneva.

"They will be flown to another location where our officers will start conducting interviews with each of them individually to know if they wish to be repatriated," he said.

"At this stage, however, it is not possible to know the number of those released. This will only be known after the interviews are finished," the official added.

Abdulaziz said the prisoners were being released on humanitarian grounds at the request of Libyan leader Col Muammar Qadhafi to mark the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

He said 600 Moroccans would still be left in the custody of Polisario, but noted that 1,600 had been released so far.

Morocco, he alleged, was still holding 150 Polisario prisoners, while 500 others remained missing.

The Algerian-based movement has released 946 Moroccan prisoners in several batches since January 2000. Most recently, it freed 243 in August.

The ICRC said then that Polisario was still holding 914 Moroccan prisoners of war, most of whom had been detained at prison camps in western Algeria for over 20 years.

Polisario launched a guerrilla war against Morocco in 1976, when Spain withdrew its colonial administration from the Western Sahara and divided the desert territory between Morocco and Mauritania. Mauritania subsequently withdrew its claim and allowed Morocco to take control of the entire territory. Polisario continued fighting Morocco until 1991, when a ceasefire was declared.

Since then, the United Nations has been trying to broker a political settlement acceptable to both sides.

The latest UN plan, devised by former US Secretary of State James Baker earlier this year, offers the inhabitants of the Western Sahara a large degree of autonomy for five years, after which they would vote in a referendum for independence, continued autonomy or full integration with Morocco.

This plan was accepted by the Polisario and endorsed by the UN Security Council, but has been rejected by Morocco's King Mohamed VI.