AGADIR, Morocco (AP) – The last Moroccan prisoners of war, 404 soldiers, some held for up to 20 years in desert camps, have returned home, hours after they were freed by Western Sahara guerrillas in a U.S.-mediated release.
Two U.S.-military chartered planes carrying the freed POWs who had been held in southwest Algeria touched down at the airport in Morocco”s southern coastal city of Agadir.
U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, who had overseen the handover ceremony Thursday in Tindouf, a bleak desert outpost where the guerillas are based, greeted the men at the foot of the aircraft. He had arrived in a separate aircraft. Moroccan Foreign Minister Mohamed Benaissa and other political and military officials also were present.
The former prisoners, flown home under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross, were quickly whisked away on buses. Lugar”s office said the prisoners had been the longest held in the world at this time.
The men had been captured by the Polisario Front who for years fought Morocco for the independence of the mineral-rich Western Sahara region. The United States expressed hope the release of the POWs would provide momentum for a settlement of the three-decade-long dispute.
"Although our mission is purely humanitarian, I am hopeful that Algeria and Morocco can seize on this occasion to create a climate conducive to the settlement of the Western Sahara issue," Lugar said. Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had traveled to the region at the request of U.S. President George W. Bush. The White House said the prisoner release was "the product of quiet and intense diplomatic efforts among the United States, Morocco and Algeria."
Morocco rejoiced at the release of the prisoners, praising the role of the United States, a solid ally. However, a Foreign Ministry statement suggested the return of the POWs alone would not unblock the bitter stalemate over Western Sahara, which Morocco refers to as its "southern provinces."
The mass release was but a "belated accomplishment of an international obligation" that "in no way" can be viewed as a gesture by the Polisario or an intervention by Algeria, said the statement, quoted by the official MAP news agency.
Morocco praised the prisoners for enduring "suffering, exactions, intimidation and humiliation inflicted by their various torturers and jailers."
Mohamed Belkadi, freed in 2003 after 25 years, two months and 25 days as a Polisario prisoner, said he was "enormously happy" over the mass release.
The Moroccan former fighter pilot was captured when his F-5 jet was shot down.
"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," he told The Associated Press in an interview 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 allow a long-delayed referendum on Western Sahara”s future and release or account for missing civilians and Polisario POWs, although The United Nations says the ICRC verified that all Polisario POWs had been released by 1996.
"They are in the hot seat," a Polisario representative, Mohamed Beissat, said in a telephone interview. "We are challenging them to free our political detainees, our POWs, and to say a word about our disappeared people."
Western Sahara, with a population of 270,000, was a Spanish colony until 1975. Morocco then annexed the vast mineral-rich territory, but faced resistance from Polisario rebels who waged a desert war to gain the territory”s independence.
The fighting, which pitted Polisario guerrillas against Morocco”s U.S.-equipped army, ended in 1991 with a U.N.-negotiated cease-fire that called for a referendum on the region”s future. That has not been held.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan welcomed the release as "a positive step."
But retired Moroccan army Col. Mohammed Boughdadi, the author of several books on Saharan history, called it a Polisario "publicity stunt to get on the good side of the international community. The liberation will under no circumstances lead to a referendum," he said in an telephone interview. "There is no way we would agree to a referendum about something that is already ours."
Lugar was accompanied by Gen. James L. Jones, commander of U.S. forces in Europe. The senator met with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on Thursday for talks on terrorism and other issues. He was to meet Friday with Morocco”s king, Mohammed VI, and the prime minister.
Washington is concerned that the Sahara”s vast expanses could be a haven for terrorist organizations.