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Last Updated: Friday, 5 March, 2004, 23:02 GMT
Western Sahara families reunited
Sahrawi children
Generations of Sahrawis have known nothing but conflict
Families from the disputed territory of Western Sahara have been reunited under a UN programme after almost 30 years apart.

Twenty-one refugees from camps in Tindouf, Algeria, were flown by the UN to Laayoune, the capital of Moroccan- controlled Western Sahara.

Nineteen people then flew back on the same plane to see relatives in Algeria.

The week-long visits were marred by complaints from Morocco about comments made by a visitor from Tindouf.

Post-colonial rivals

The exchanges are part of peace efforts by the United Nations, which has been trying to mediate in the long-running conflict over Western Sahara.

The families reunited on Friday were separated in 1975, when colonial ruler Spain withdrew from Western Sahara and most of the phosphate-rich territory was annexed by Morocco.

The Algerian-backed Polisario Front declared the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976 and claims to represent the Sahrawi nomads. It waged a guerrilla war against Morocco for the territory from 1976 until 1991.

"It's a very emotional event. Many of our people have not been home or seen their families for almost 30 years," Mohamed Yeslem Bissat, representative for the Polisario Front in Algeria, told Reuters news agency.

The UN says the plane shuttle may become a weekly event due to "enormous" interest.

But the Moroccan representative to the initiative, Hamid Chabar, was angered by comments made to the press by a man in the Tindouf delegation on his arrival in Laayoune.

'Causing trouble'

The man's comments have not been quoted, but were reportedly supportive of the Polisario Front.

Mr Chabar said all parties to the reunion operation had agreed to refrain from making political statements.

"We knew that the other party who is involved in this operation would try to cause a bit of trouble," Mr Chabar said on Moroccan radio.

"We expected there to be someone or some people appointed to make statements. This is considered a violation of the agreement with the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees]... and we hope it will not be repeated."

A UNHCR official, Redouane Nouessar, said the visitor's comments were "regrettable" and the agency would try to ensure "they don't happen again".

The UN has been trying to promote a peace plan which would see Western Sahara become a semi-autonomous region of Morocco for up to five years, after which a referendum on independence would be held.

But Morocco is reluctant to accept any option which allows the possibility of the territory's eventual independence.

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06 Jan 04  |  Africa

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