Refugees phone home after 30 years of isolation

After nearly 30 years of isolation at remote camps in the Algerian desert, 165,000 refugees from the Western Sahara have finally been given the chance to phone their relatives back home for free.

The service was launched at a school in one camp last Monday and more than 50 calls were placed to relatives in the Moroccan-ruled territory within the first two days. About 80 percent of the calls were made by women.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR aims to extend the free phone facility at all five refugee camps near Tindouf in western Algeria.

"The phone line will bring together families separated by this long-standing conflict and allow them to get closer," Radhouane Nouicer, an official with UNHCR said. "It is a real humanitarian advance after so many years."

The Western Sahara was annexed by Morocco in 1976 after Spain withdrew its colonial administration. But the Algeria-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO) has been fighting since then for the desert strip on the coast of Northwest Africa to become an independent state.

Armed clashes came to an end with a ceasefire in 1991, but UN-backed negotiations since then to secure a political settlement have made little progress.

The United Nations began pushing for the five years ago and it was originally launched in April 2003. However, it was suspended after just one day at the request of Polisario.

UNHCR only secured permission for the link to be revived after a series of meetings in October and December attended by Algerian and Moroccan governments, Polisario and donors.

UNHCR said negotiations were under way to begin a mail service between the refugee camps and people living inside the Western Sahara.

It also announced plans to start family visits. UN aircraft would be used to shuttle a limited number people between the Tindouf camps and the disputed territory.

The latest UN peace plan for the Western Sahara conflict, drawn up last year by former US Secretary of State James Baker, 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.

However, although the plan was accepted by Polisario and approved by the UN Security Council, it was rejected by Morocco.