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300 Moroccan Prisoners Repatriated by ICRC

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the ICRC says 300 Moroccan prisoners were freed Saturday by the Polisario Front and were repatriated under its auspices. The Moroccans were flown home on an aircraft provided by the Libyan authorities.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says its delegates, including two doctors, spoke to each Moroccan prisoner in private to make sure that he was returning home of his own free will.

The Red Cross doctors accompanied the prisoners on their flight home and remained with them until they were handed over to the Moroccan authorities.

Although the Red Cross welcomes this prisoner release, a spokeswoman for the organization, Antonella Notari, says 614 Moroccans are still being detained by the Polisario Front. She says the ICRC continues to insist that they be released without delay.

"Some of them have been detained over 20 years," said Antonella Notari. "These are prisoners of war. They were combatants in the international conflict. They were caught in the battlefield. There is no reason, no legally based, of course, reason to detain them that long. We regret that and, as I say, we insist on their immediate release. Some of them have become quite old. Many of them are very frail. They are physically and mentally affected by this long detention."

The Polisaro Front wants the Western Sahara to become a state independent from Moroccan rule. It is asking for a referendum to decide the issue.

Morocco insists that its citizens participate in the vote. The Polisario Front rejects this demand because its own people would be outnumbered by the Moroccans, meaning it almost certainly would lose the vote. The 614 prisoners they hold have become pawns in this political struggle.

Since February, 643 Moroccan prisoners have been released under the auspices of the ICRC. Spokeswoman Notari says Red Cross delegates regularly visit the prisoners still in Polisario custody. The agency provides them with medical care and maintains contact between the prisoners and their families.