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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 April 2006, 21:01 GMT 22:01 UK
Morocco orders captives' release
King Mohamed VI of Morocco
King Mohammed VI announced the release of 48 prisoners
Morocco's King Mohammed has ordered the release of 48 Sahrawi activists jailed last year for demonstrations demanding the independence of Western Sahara.

Officials said the pardon would free the last remaining political prisoners from Western Sahara.

The area, once a colony of Spain, was annexed by Morocco in 1978.

It comes a day after United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan urged Morocco to hold direct talks with the Polisario Front independence group.

Referendum delay

Morocco has rejected a UN-sponsored peace plan involving immediate self-government for Western Sahara and a referendum on independence within five years.

But Morocco has offered to give the territory greater autonomy.

"The sovereign has pardoned all the Sahrawi prisoners and they are already being freed," an official source was quoted by news agency AFP.

Map showing location of Western Sahara

The Western Sahara was fought over by Morocco and Mauritania after Spain's withdrawal, before Morocco took over the territory. The Polisario Front then fought for independence from Morocco.

The 48 people had been serving sentences of varying lengths for offences which included sabotage of public property and using weapons against public officials.

A UN-sponsored ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front began in 1991. A referendum on the territory's independence was supposed to be held soon after, but the referendum has never taken place.

On Friday, Mr Annan said the stalemate over Western Sahara had become so serious that the only solution was for Morocco to negotiate directly with Western Saharan rebels.

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