U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar has been sent to North Africa by President Bush to oversee the release of some 400 Moroccan prisoners still held in Algeria from the Western Sahara conflict. Senator Lugar is also due to visit Libya.
In a presidential mission kept secret until his departure, Senator Lugar left Washington Wednesday for Algeria, where he will oversee at the release of the last 404 Moroccan soldiers held since the end of the Western Sahara conflict.
The Algerian-backed Polisario Front captured some 2000 Moroccan troops in its 16-year war with Morocco over the desert territory.
The conflict began in 1975 after colonial power Spain withdrew from the Western Sahara. It ended with a U.N. brokered cease-fire in 1991 with Morocco in de facto control of the area.
There have been several prisoner releases in recent years but no final political resolution of the dispute, and more than 150,000 refugees from the war remain in Algeria where the Polisario is based.
A State Department official who briefed reporters said Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika requested the dispatch of a senior U.S. envoy to witness the release of the Moroccans, some of whom have been held for 20 years or more under harsh conditions.
The official said Senator Lugar would meet President Bouteflika in Algiers Thursday. He is then fly to the southwestern Algerian city of Tindouf, where the Moroccans are to be released from a prison camp, processed by U.N. officials, and then flown by U.S.-chartered planes to Morocco.
Senator Lugar will also witness their return to Morocco and meet with Moroccan King Mohammed VI on Friday.
The U.S. official expressed hope the final prisoner release, long sought by Morocco, will lead to improved ties between Algeria and its neighbor, and renewed efforts to settle the Western Sahara issue.
The Rabat government has resisted a U.N. plan for the region to become semi-autonomous for four to five years, leading to an independence referendum.
The United States, which has good relations with both Algeria and Morocco, has been heavily involved in settlement efforts.
Former Secretary of State James Baker worked on the issue as a special U.N. envoy for several years before resigning in 2004.
The U.S. diplomat who briefed reporters said Senator Lugar will visit Libya after Morocco for meetings with senior officials, possibly including Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi.
If the meeting occurs, the Senator would be one of the most prominent U.S. political figures to meet the Libyan leader since the thaw in bilateral relations began in late 2003 with Libya's renunciation of weapons of mass destruction.