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US Welcomes POW Release in Morocco - 2002-01-18

The United States has welcomed Thursday's release by the Algerian-backed Polisario Front of 115 Moroccan soldiers captured over the years in fighting over disputed Western Sahara. They included some of the world's longest-held prisoners of war.

The Moroccan soldiers, most of them sick and elderly, were handed over to officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross at the town of Tindouf in southwestern Algeria, where the Polisario has its headquarters. They were then flown to Morocco.

Among them was a 76-year-old army captain who was the first Moroccan captured by the Polisario in 1975, as it began its armed struggle with Morocco for control of the desert territory, a former Spanish colony.

There has been a cease-fire in the war between the Polisario, which wants independence for the territory, and Morocco, which claims it, since 1991.

But efforts to get a final peace accord and resolve related issues, including the disposition of prisoners, have dragged on for years, despite U.N. mediation efforts.

Thursday's release was welcomed by the State Department as a positive step by the Polisario, although spokeswoman Lynn Cassel said the parties are obligated under international law to free all those still held from the 15-year guerrilla conflict.

"The United States calls on all the parties to the Western Sahara dispute to respect international human rights law, and release, or account for, all those missing or held prisoner since the start of the conflict, as called for by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1359," she said.

Ms. Cassel, who also welcomed a recent amnesty of Western Saharan prisoners by Morocco, urged the parties to "engage seriously" with U.N. representatives to reach a mutually-acceptable solution to the long-running dispute.

A 10-year-old U.N. plan to give the mostly-nomadic population of Western Sahara a choice between independence or integration with Morocco has been deadlocked over the parties' failure to agree on who would vote in the referendum.