GENEVA (Reuters) – Western Sahara”s exiled Polisario Front independence movement on Thursday freed its last 404 Moroccan prisoners of war, many held for almost two decades, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.
The neutral Geneva-based humanitarian agency said the handover in Tindouf, southwest Algeria, followed mediation by the United States. The freed men were being flown to Morocco to be reunited with their families.
"The Polisario Front today (Thursday) released all the Moroccan prisoners in its custody," a ICRC statement said.
"Their repatriation ends a long period of internment and marks an important step in resolving the humanitarian consequences of the conflict in the Western Sahara," it added.
The release could ease tensions between Morocco and Algeria in a region where the West wants stability because of fears it could be a possible source of Islamic militancy.
The former prisoners were to be flown later in the day to Agadir, Morocco, according to ICRC spokeswoman Nada Doumani.
U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had been due to oversee the release. It was not clear if he had arrived in Tindouf on time.
Over the years the ICRC has repatriated more than 2,000 Moroccan prisoners captured during a 16-year-long guerrilla war with Morocco over the Western Sahara.
Its officials regularly visited the detainees, providing medical care and transmitting messages to their families.
A U.N.-brokered ceasefire was clinched in 1991, ending the conflict with a promise of a referendum on the territory”s future but Morocco has refused to allow a vote on self-determination.
The ICRC also said it would pursue its efforts to clear up the fate of "all those reported missing in connection with this conflict."
More than 250 people on each side are still reported as missing, according to ICRC spokeswoman Doumani.